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.