By KIRAN SURY
1986 was an important year. Microsoft launched its IPO, the Iran-contra affair was revealed, and Oprah started her famous talk show. It was also the year that Cindy Pietromonico started working at Long Island College Hospital, or LICH. Now, 27 years later and with five children to take care of, she can only work there part-time.
SUNY Downstate’s planned shutdown of the Brooklyn hospital has caused turmoil for the people who keep it running. With help from the State Supreme Court and the New York State Nurses Association, hospital employees are still fighting to keep the hospital afloat – possibly with a new owner.
Thanks to favorable court rulings, the hospital is still open, but after so many months of uncertainty, workers like Pietromonico are faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to their job for the past two decades and finding a new one. The loss of workers has only made it harder for the hospital to function properly as experienced units are broken up and distributed to cover the workload. The hospital also cut hours for some of its workers during the shutdown process, throwing their schedules into disarray.
Pietromonico has started working full-time during the week at the Brooklyn campus of the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System and part-time at Long Island College Hospital on weekends. “Starting over as a new nurse after being a nurse for over 30 years is a little bit unnerving to say the least,” she said. But if the hospital closes, “Plan B is I get another job and my life goes on.”
The hospital workers found hope in a ruling State Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Demarest issued in August. Stepping away from her previous decision, the judge determined that Downstate had not fulfilled its responsibility to keep the hospital open and vacated her order giving LICH property to Downstate. Then on Sept. 12, Justice Johnny Lee Baynes found a state regulation involved in the hospital’s closure to be unconstitutional On Oct. 15 he followed up and ordered Downstate to stop following its plan to close the hospital.
Downstate’s appeal of Baynes’ rulings was rejected. After Continuum Health Partners (LICH’s previous partner) refused to return, the nursing association is looking for another partner to keep the hospital open.
In the meantime, employees show up for work every day not knowing if it will be their last on the job. Even as they struggle to save the hospital, it means coming up with a backup plan.
Efren Villanueva, a nurse in the CCU for 28 years, is now part of a floater unit at the hospital and works wherever he is needed. He said that when the hospital temporarily shut down over the summer and he was separated from colleagues he had worked with for years, “it felt like we were homeless.”
“You have your own turf, and all of a sudden the unit was closed,” he said. “You have no identity, you go to wherever they want.”
Despite his current situation, Villanueva will not leave the hospital voluntarily. He said he had accepted that it was going to close when the emergency units were closed, but now has more hope for the hospital. “I don’t know if I’m still in denial,” he said. “At this point, I’m staying up until the end. And the day they say it’s closed, that’s when I go find another employment.”
Woodrow Llewellyn, a nurse in the ICU since 1992, has a more specific idea in mind: travel nursing, or as he jokingly refers to it, “a cheap vacation.”
“You can be in Hawaii today, California tomorrow, anywhere in the United states that they have a contract with,” he said. “It’s a new adventure. Something different.”
While many LICH employees remain, some could not afford to stay when their hours were reduced.
Lisma Martir, a nurse in the CCU for 24 years, left the hospital in September to work at the Mount Sinai Transplant Institute. As a single mother of two children, she said she felt anxious when she heard about the planned closure in January. “I needed a sense of something more stable because I have nobody else to rely on, I’m the head of the family,” she said. After staying on for nine months, “This job opportunity unexpectedly came up and I had to decide between the future and the present. And I concluded that it’s time to go.”
Dr. Louis Gerolemou, a pulmonary and critical care specialist, also recently left the hospital along with his wife, a psychiatrist. He said he “freaked out” when SUNY decided to close the hospital because as full-time salaried workers, “our whole family income was dependent on LICH.” After his wife found a position at Franklin Hospital in Valley Stream in May, he felt more secure. But when the ambulance service was cut off, the in-patient services also withered away. “It became blatantly obvious at that point that I needed to move on,” he said.
Now at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in Fort Greene, Gerolemou said that it would be very difficult to go back to even if LICH stayed open for good. “It’s a shame. From the beginning if there was the political and judicial support it has gotten recently, maybe things would have been a little bit different,” he said. “But it seems like it kind of spiraled so far out of control that it’s difficult to recover from the point that it’s at now.”
The patients, he said, would be affected the most. “We’ve seen a lot of the patients that were going to LICH coming over to Brooklyn Hospital and they’ve really been displaced.”
LICH’s financial problems were known as early as 2011, when a state report recommended that hospitals be closed in favor of outpatient clinics, and that it merge with SUNY Downstate. Based on this report, Justice Demarest approved the transfer of hospital property to SUNY Downstate with the understanding that Downstate would continue operations.
The situation seemed stable until this January, when the SUNY Board of Trustees voted to close the hospital. According to the local nurses association secretary Julie Semente, the hospital staff was unaware of the decision. “Nobody knew that SUNY was making any of these plans. We found out with the whole rest of the city,” she said, referring to an article that broke the story.
Joan Rowley, membership chairperson for the nurses’ executive council and a LICH nurse for 37 years, said that the nurses understood the health care system and that a merger was needed to keep the hospital running. “We’re not naïve,” she said. But she said SUNY broke its agreement and characterized the shutdown as “pure greed” for the hospital’s assets, which are valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Concha Mendoza, a board member of advocacy group Concerned Physicians of LICH, said that the problems were exacerbated by the lack of coordination between the University Hospital of Brooklyn at Downstate and Long Island College Hospital. Downstate needed impact studies of how the hospital closure would affect the community, she said, before anything else happened.
SUNY proceeded to shut down the hospital anyway, closing special units, cutting staff hours and sending ambulances to other hospitals. SUNY said the hospital was losing money, and it needed to contain costs. Protesters countered that SUNY wanted to shut down the hospital as quickly as possible so it could sell the property and reap the profit.
Villanueva said he felt disrespected. “It’s not a good feeling coming to work and you see your unit closed and padlocked. It’s a show of disrespect,” he said. “With all the years of service at that hospital, and this is what you get? There’s no loyalty in this place.”
Llewellyn called the situation “ridiculous.”
“It reminds me of the cartoon where the guy walks in and he sees the room full of money, and his eyes turn into dollar signs. He doesn’t see anything else happening around him, just that pile of money,” he said.
Hospital employees responded by staging events to gain community support. Pietromonico said she was the first person to be arrested this July for disorderly conduct at a protest outside the SUNY Downstate College of Optometry. Papers preferred to report on the arrests of more prominent figures, such as Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. But for the people who work at LICH every day, the multiple court hearings and protests were no publicity stunt.
If LICH closes, Rowley said that she will pursue her passion for mental health education, focusing on teaching parents how to cope with children who have mental health issues. She will also increase her involvement with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
After 30 years at the hospital, Semente said she would use the opportunity to enter another profession, perhaps as a legal nurse consultant. She said she does not want to work at another hospital. “Nothing could compare to what we have at LICH.”
Photo: Julie Semente, left, and Joan Rowley are fighting to save LICH from closing. (Kiran Sury)