Last year the city acted on long-standing plans to develop the southern end of Roosevelt Island. As a result, Goldwater Memorial Hospital will be closing at the end of the year and everyone who considers it their home will be forced to move to other facilities in the city. This is the story of two people whose lives will immeasurably change when the hospital shuts down.
Armand Xama, 31, and Bryan Duggan, 51, are best friends who both suffered broken necks in similar diving accidents. Both are paralyzed from the chest-down and require daily nursing care and wheelchairs to move around. Both of them live at the Goldwater complex located on the southern end of Roosevelt Island—another part of the hospital campus, Coler Hospital, is on the northern end—in order to receive healthcare through Medicaid. The two are part of a larger community of residents at the hospital who have suffered spinal or neck injuries and use wheelchairs.
Currently, Goldwater Hospital functions mainly as a nursing facility, housing over 800 patients, more than 470 of whom are physically disabled and require specialized care. A unique community of patients with similar neck and spinal injuries has formed within the hospital. Goldwater, while far from perfect, provides these individuals with the assistance they need in order to maintain as much independence and functionality as possible.
Roosevelt Island itself provides a relaxed atmosphere with flat topography and minimal traffic that is ideal for wheelchair users. “I love Roosevelt Island, it’s a quiet place, not too much cars, perfect for people with wheelchairs and everything is so perfect," Armand says. "You could go out in the middle of the street. I feel lucky that I have a place to live that is so accessible to the city.”
Bryan was paralyzed in a diving accident in Rochester, New York, when he was 21 years old. He was diving off a rail bridge only a few feet above the water and he hit his head on a sandbar. He has lived in various facilities throughout New York State before moving to Goldwater in 2006.
Armand, who is from Albania, suffered his injury while on a vacation with his wife. They had taken the vacation to celebrate winning a green-card lottery to come to the United States. Armand initially sought treatment in Albania and then came to New York to live with relatives before moving into a medical facility. He and his wife are now separated.
The two men met soon after Armand arrived at Goldwater in 2011. Armand says that he and Bryan started talking to one another because they both had long hair and similar tastes in heavy metal and rock bands. They began hanging out with each other almost every day and would go into the city to see art, movies, and concerts together. Their friendship is just one of the many bonds that exist among the patients at Goldwater.
In July 2010, the city stated that it was planning to relocate some of Goldwater's patients and staff to a facility in Harlem. Five months later, Mayor Bloomberg announced Goldwater's location as a possible site in a tech campus competition. In December 2011, the mayor named Cornell and Technion universities the winners of a bid to construct a sprawling science and engineering campus where the hospital now stands. This massive, two billion dollar project will take decades to complete and cover nearly one-third of the island. It will radically transform Roosevelt Island and affect all 12,000 of its residents, but the first ones to feel the impact will be the residents of Goldwater. Cornell has said they plan on using some of the rubble from Goldwater's demolished edifice to raise the level of their campus site out of the floodplain.
The closure of Goldwater Hospital and the imminent relocation have received little media coverage. "This is a really old story and it's done before," Evelyn Hernández, the director media relations for the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation told us over the phone. "I wanted to make sure you know that the story's been done before, a long time ago. We've announced it in press releases."
Nevertheless, patients and staff feel that they are being brushed aside in the name of progress and that the closure of the hospital is being handled poorly, with little regard for the well being of the residents. The community that exists within Goldwater will be broken up as people are transferred to other facilities, and there is a fear that the care given will not be as good.
Most patients at the facility have no income and are supported through Medicaid. They have no say in their future and there is little else they can do but wait to be relocated. "Some of the patients will end up at a new facility in Harlem, some may end up at Coler," Hernández, the hospital spokeswoman said. "We have staff who are working with the individual patients to make sure that people end up in a placement that's appropriate for them…the process is ongoing." The new $285 million, 365-bed facility in Harlem, named the Henry J. Carter Campus, will be located in two separate buildings and is set to open by the end of the year. "The residents will be provided with orientation to the new facility and to the new community they'll be joining," Hernández said. "Our patients have been well cared for in Roosevelt Island and they'll be well cared for in Harlem."
Bryan and Armand are not looking forward to being relocated. “They're closing now because they're moving Cornell University here, making room for progress," Bryan says. "Granted, that's nice. But it's a shame they can't find a better place for it. Right now it's just so hard. They want to get people to move out of Goldwater but the social workers don't really know what they are doing and I have no idea how they are going to acclimate these people back into the community.”
Armand hopes to be moved into the Coler Medical facility on the northern end of the island, but he has heard rumors that it too will be closing sometime in the next five years because the city wants to sell off the land to developers.
Despite the hardships both men have endured and the uncertain future they now face, they remain resilient. “Maintaining a positive attitude is very important,” says Armand, “Because we want to continue to have a good life. This is a part of our life, its not our life, and we are just going to have to deal with it and live. Being active and having a good spirit, that's what keeps the body working. ”
Thinking about his injury Armand adds, “It gives you another perspective of life. That is one of the advantages of this, you start appreciating life more." Bryan is also confident that “there will be a nursing home spot for me somewhere. All I can do is say my prayers and hope that it works out. If that's what meant to be, that's what's meant to be. If not, I'll take everything with a grain of salt and keep going. At least I’m in New York City."
All photos and text by Daniel Tepper, a freelance photographer who worked on the piece while he was a student at the International Center of Photography.
Additional reporting & editing by Christopher Robbins.
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