Friday, March 3, 2017
Reading Bellevue reminded me why I enjoy good nonfiction so much. This book presents the specific story of one hospital and a much larger one of New York City over hundreds of years and the medical progress that we have made in that time. For those of us living now, it's difficult to imagine an era when we wouldn't go to a hospital. But for many years, those with means would be seen in the comfort of their homes and hospitals were only for those who truly had no other choice, like yellow fever victims in the 18th century. Bellevue was the place for patients no one else wanted to take in throughout its history. These doctors treated soldiers injured during the Civil War, people poisoned from bad alcohol during Prohibition, and drug addicts.
Bellevue doctors and surgeons were the first to develop an ambulance corps in the United States, figure out how to perform surgery on a battlefield, and spearhead the idea of public health to keep people from needing the hospital in the first place. But Oshinsky doesn't shy away from discussing the failings of Belleveue's staff either. Frank Hamilton was the surgeon summoned to treat President Garfield after he was shot. Unfortunately, Hamilton (and some of his Bellevue colleagues) were the last holdouts regarding sterile surgery procedures. His refusal to clean his hands or surgical instruments likely played a role in Garfield's demise. Readers will also find out just why Bellevue has a reputation as a mental hospital (although Oshinsky seems to downplay this aspect). It was a place where many advancements in mental health occurred, alongside some truly awful treatment decisions. Dr. Lauretta Bender is a prime example of a doctor who made some questionable choices. She took over the children's psychiatric ward in the 1930s and regularly used electroshock therapy on her young patients, never acknowledging the ethical problems with this treatment.
Bellevue is a fairly long and impressive look at hundreds of years of history, both medical and otherwise. As I read through the final chapters, though, I wish that Oshinsky had given us more information about the storied hospital in the last fifty years. I would have loved to read more about the things that the innovators at Bellevue are accomplishing now and what they hope to contribute to medicine and to New York City in the future.
Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital
By David M. Oshinsky
Doubleday September 2016
Read via Netgalley