For the first time in sixty-two years, I returned to the hospital that saved my life when I was one month old after having been operated on for pyloric stenosis, a stomach obstruction. Now the hospital is called, as is obvious from the photo, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and is well-known as a trauma center. Without its facilities nearby in 1952, I don’t know that I would have survived. How exciting it was to pull up to it on the bus!
I was actually born in Newark at St. Barnabas Hospital, which was later relocated to a suburb, and I grew up in Hillside, a town in New Jersey which bordered Newark. Race relations were terrible and tense back then and as a child, my parents warned that Newark was a dangerous place. During the 1968 race riots, the National Guard was called in–Newark was burning. Chaos reigned. There was little incentive to visit Newark back in the 50s and 60s. Hillside was a town composed mainly of Irish, German, Polish, and Italian immigrants. Two large sections of the town were largely Jewish. Very few, if any, African-Americans lived there. Newark was off-limits.
When I took the 99 bus to Newark last week from Hillside, which is now mainly populated with African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Portuguese, everyone was friendly and more than helpful to me in finding my way to the hospital. What a healing experience it was to feel welcomed and accepted. The hospital, to my surprise, was a five-minute ride from the Hillside Public Library, just at the southern edge of Newark. I could’ve easily visited at any number of points in my life, but ironically, now when I’m living farthest away in California, it was time .
At the hospital, before being let into the lobby upstairs, I had to check in with security. When I told the guard why I was there–to reconnect with the place that saved my life–he called his supervisor to say that there was a woman who was on a personal journey of importance and asked if I could have permission to take pictures of the text and images on the walls of the upstairs hallway that told the history of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
Tracy and Lisa opened their hearts to my journey. Initially, Lisa, to my right in the photo, spent time with me as I told her the story of my operation for pyloric stenosis. I took photos as I narrated how my mother paced the halls and looked out the windows onto the pedestrians below walking on Lyons Avenue, wishing she were the one living a normal life and going to work that day instead of waiting to hear whether her new baby daughter’s life would be saved.
When looking at the photo of the hospital’s original surgeons and interns, I told Lisa how a pediatric specialist had to be called in from a hospital in New York City to operate on me at Beth Israel. Apparently, according to my mother, not many doctors back then could do well with so fine a surgery. Maybe the very surgeon, whose name I was never told, was pictured in this photograph. Surely the doctors at the front sides of the gurney knew of the surgeon who had operated on me. I made a mental note to go through the tubs of my mother’s photos and letters piled up in the garage to see if there is mention of the surgeon’s name.
I choked up when I saw the photos and text about the creation of the pediatric unit at the hospital and the children’s ward.
In the photo below, the glass in the display window reflected my camera flash, but in the center of the photo is a baby being held by a nurse.
A downside of my experience at Beth Israel as a baby, as I told Tracy and Lisa, is that anesthesia and pain control were likely not administered, standard procedure at the time for various reasons. A drug Curare was probably given to paralyze me so I couldn’t move or fight. I do have trauma from the surgery, but not physical consequences I am glad to say, but emotional which I’ve striven to heal all these many years. I can’t blame the hospital for the residual Post-traumatic Stress with which I struggle; the doctors, nurses and staff were following the standard protocol of the day for surgery on infants. Of course, I wish they had been more knowledgeable about the psychological effects of infant trauma, but they hadn’t a clue! Sadly, many still do not though after 1987, anesthesia for infants became more standard.
At the door of the medical center, Tracy and Lisa showed me where I could stand on Maple Avenue and spot the old Beth Israel Hospital behind the newer buildings of the medical center–the building in which I would have been operated on and where my mother waited for word of my survival. The place she visited daily as I recovered from the surgery in my sterile room as she looked through a window from the hallway.
My mother brought me to Beth Israel when my life hung in the balance. Here was where I suffered. Here is where I survived. I am lucky to have had a wonderful surgeon. I am lucky that Beth Israel was only two miles from my childhood home. I’m lucky that the hospital even existed; it was created by a group called the Daughters of Israel because the Christian hospitals in the area often would not accept Jews as patients. Beth Israel Hospital was built 1900-01 and has steadily grown to be a major medical center for the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area.
I am grateful to so many who helped me and my family through hard times. I am glad that I finally returned to pay my respects and to acknowledge what a huge role this hospital played in my existence and successful physical recovery. With this visit, my life has come full circle. There are other circles to make, not all of which will come to pass. This return was one of the most important.
What a wonderful story of an amazing visit. You are so lucky to have all the visual photos and information. Thanks for sharing Wendy. Namaste xxx
Yes, I feel fortunate. Thank you for reading and caring–means a lot to me. xxx and peace.
Thank you, Wendy, for telling this story. Some day I hope to make a similar visit to Methodist Hospital in Peoria, Illinois where I was circumcised on day one in 1945. I’m in awe of your poise and grace at being able to make your visit primarily one of expressing gratitude to the surgeon and staff that saved your life. What a huge step to forgive everyone involved for paralyzing you and subjecting you to unimaginable pain in order to solve your physical problem! There is still so little awareness of the suffering experienced by countless babies during that dark age when doctors tried to believe babies felt no pain and remembered no pain, that I would have sympathized if you had gone to the hospital to convey your anger over the lifelong emotional toll placed on you by that surgery. But you did the greater thing, Wendy. You forgave. I will try to live up to your wonderful example. Robert
Dearest Robert, I don’t know that I did the “greater thing,” but I did what I had to do. I think everyone is different in this regard. I’ve certainly had numerous fantasies of shooting up the hospital and the surgeons and the surgery theatre on and on. These fantasies felt good and released a lot of tension. I do have anger but I also understand the times in which I was operated on. (I’ll email you a private story about the trip that I’d like you expressly to hear.) What I so appreciate about your perspective is your understanding of the emotional toll we’ve suffered. It’s huge. It’s been lifelong; it’s lightening more and more, but it’s part of my journey forever. Our maiming and torture was key in deciding the course of our lives. And so many now are suffering and not knowing why. I’m very grateful that we are in communication. Thank you for commenting and caring.
At last! Someone with the insight to solve the promleb!
Please say more about what you mean. Thank you for your comment!
Thank you for such a beautiful account of this moving return. The healing occurs on so many levels and you convey it so powerfully.
Thanks for your supportive words. Thanks for being the best of writing buddies!
How wonderful that you made this journey of reconnection, what a treasure-trove of photos you collected, and what a moving report you have written! Your interaction with Robert was also very important, and you have both given expression to the range to thoughts and feelings we share after our old-time infant surgery.
I am so glad that Beth Israel received you so sensitively and graciously. How different this was from my own and others’ experiences on similar journeys. Your post coincided with my recent visit to the Netherlands, where I had my PS operation in 1945. My initial approach by email to “my” hospital some years ago was met with the curtest possible response. As others have found, the deflection of possible litigation was clearly running strongly! I am sure that your personal and gracious approach worked wonders for you.
Thanks for sharing this memorable visit and best wishes as you continue to retrace your journey!
Thank you, Fred, for your response. I’m sorry to hear of ‘your’ hospital’s “curt” response. Yes, my hospital was gracious because I was filled with gratitude. The administrator though had initially, I understood, wanted to do an article for the hospital newsletter, or some such publication, but did not extend her invitation when I told her honestly that my experience was “bittersweet,” for the surgery was done without anesthesia or pain control and this has had lifelong consequences for me. I communicated that I was not there to litigate but appreciate. Still, the invitation was not followed up on and my story did not reach the hospital publication. I told her I write a blog about trauma and infant surgery and I bet this scared her. I didn’t want her to find out in the interview but rather for her to know ahead of time. I told them, the administrator and her assistant, that I did not hold anyone at the hospital responsible, for that’s how surgery was done at that time. But they were a bit frightened by my presence. Sad, isn’t it? Still, they were as gracious as they could be and probably breathed a sigh of relief when I left to photograph from down the street the older part of the hospital where my mother worried over my surgery and I suffered and was saved. This experience with the hospital makes me even more determined to get the real story out about infant surgery. In any case, I am appreciative of Beth Israel Hospital and the fact that it saved my life and helped my family.