November 23, 2007

Pascack Shuts Down Amid Tears, Toasts


Jessica Costeniuc, 14, sat stoically as six stitches were removed from her hand Wednesday. It was the nurses who cried. They wept and hugged over the closing of Pascack Valley Hospital.

The 48-year-old community hospital that tended to countless heart patients, expectant moms and banged-up kids shut down at 3 p.m.

As workers placed black plastic over the "Emergency" sign in the rear of the Westwood hospital, Sue and Mary Rice, longtime employees, shook their heads and filmed the final chapter on their cellphones.

"We're losing everything," said Sue Rice, a nursing assistant who hasn't yet found a job. "This stinks."

The emergency department, the last service available, resembled the set for the farewell episode of the TV series "M*A*S*H." Nurses and physicians who once worked shoulder to shoulder over critical patients shared a last sandwich. Doctors popped a bottle of champagne at 2:52 p.m. and toasted decades of stellar work. A veteran nurse departed the hospital with a miniature Christmas tree full of ornaments. "These are my balls," she said. "I'm taking them with me."

Then the crowd of 30 or so did what they had to do: retreat to Burke's Restaurant on Old Hook Road, the familiar haunt where a stiff drink had soothed the tensions of so many hellish shifts.

"People are melancholy here," said Dr. Steven Schreiber, who has worked at the hospital since 1989. "It's a family here."

"It's very sad," said Rosemary Schmitt, a medical technologist who had worked at Pascack for 33 years. Her husband, an intensive care nurse, had been on staff for 37 years.

The 280-bed hospital filed for bankruptcy Sept. 24, overwhelmed by more than $100 million in debt. It had employed 1,000 and, this year, delivered 1,000 newborns, admitted nearly 6,000 patients and operated on an additional 5,600 in its same-day surgery center.

Several suitors are expected to bid on the 20-acre property, including Hackensack University Medical Center along with Touro College. A urologist who owns several surgical centers, and commercial and residential developers, are also interested.

Bids are expected in U.S. Bankruptcy Court by early January, but it is unclear if the property will remain a hospital.

The state Health Planning Board, which heard dozens of residents testify Tuesday night in favor of keeping the hospital open, is scheduled to meet in December. The board will make a recommendation to state Health Commissioner Fred Jacobs on whether a hospital should remain in the area.

The last patient to spent the night at Pascack Valley was discharged on Sunday, said John Corcoran, vice president and spokesman.

On Wednesday, the only patients in the emergency room included the 14-year-old Dumont girl, a 28-year-old man with a minor hand injury and 22-year-old Danielle Cartaxo, the daughter of emergency room physician Kenneth Cartaxo. Danielle Cartaxo, the last patient, was treated for a knee injury.

Throughout the day, longtime patients like Betty Brinkerhoff came into the hospital to collect medical records. Most talked about how the hospital had saved their lives.

"I just want to cry," said the 74-year-old Old Tappan resident, leaning on a cane with her X-rays tucked under her arm. "It's like a wake. I hope they'll be able to open again. We need this hospital so badly."

While medical equipment will remain intact pending the sale of the property, other items were collected just hours before the hospital was shuttered.

The Rev. Thomas J. Norton, a Catholic priest who worked as a chaplain for 21 years at the hospital, emerged with a box of chalices and other religious items.

He questioned the management decisions that led to the closure of the hospital, including the building of a four-story addition with luxury maternity suites when the hospital was already in debt a target of universal wrath on Wednesday.

"Someday somebody will have to answer," he said. "They haven't yet. They haven't said 'I'm sorry.' "

At 3 p.m., Pascack Valley Hospital's ambulance crews turned over their duties over to the Westwood Volunteer Ambulance squad. Hackensack University Medical Center took over operations of Pascack Valley Hospital's Mobile Intensive Care Unit. Hackensack spent $3.6 million for the unit, which accompanies ambulances to the scene of life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

Hackensack and other local hospitals reported an increase in patient volume since the hospital began phasing out services in the last three weeks.

Englewood Hospital and Medical Center has opened a transition unit to allow less seriously injured patients to receive expedited treatment. That will free up the emergency department for critically injured patients, spokeswoman Maria Margiotta said.

Meanwhile, the union representing 400 nurses and technicians said 30 to 40 percent of its membership is still searching for jobs. Employees will be paid through Nov. 30, said Shirley Terwilliger, president of the local Health Professionals and Allied Employees.

About 100 Pascack Valley doctors have joined Englewood hospital's staff, as well as an additional 60 employees, Margiotta said.

But many employees fear the jobs they'll find won't pay as well or will be part time or per diem positions. One employee is commuting to Asbury Park for work. A radiation oncology technician is commuting hours more each week to work in New Brunswick.

Terwilliger has taken a part-time job at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. It pays less but includes health insurance. Bearing scars on her neck from recent surgery on her carotid artery, she said many others are just as frantic to have health insurance. Terwilliger is also a sole breadwinner.

"It's a hard time to be out there," she said.

Despite several news reports of the scheduled closing, public notices and chatter in surrounding towns, not everyone was prepared for the 3 p.m. closing.

A half hour after the hospital officially shut its doors, Fran Verdigi of Northvale came to collect her medical records.

"I was cooking," she said. "I completely forgot about it."


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