Last June, City Limits published the observations of an undercover reporter sent in to document poor conditions at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center’s psychiatric unit. Since then, the Bushwick hospital has started making some major improvements.
But we didn’t get a thank-you card. Instead, we got a bill for $8,400–sent straight to our publisher.
Last January, City Limits reporter Kevin Heldman spent seven-and-a-half days posing as a mental patient at Woodhull. During his time inside the 133-bed facility, Heldman lived like any other patient, coping with lousy conditions and half-hearted care, and getting charged $1,400 a day. The bed frames were filthy. The walls and floor were stained with scum. The bathroom was flooded so often that patients had to lay bed sheets on the floor to soak up the water.
But perhaps the most annoying–and symbolic–part of life in the hospital was the nursing station. Caged in Plexiglas, nurses and doctors would spend most of their time inside the station, physically and emotionally barricaded away from the patients.
Now, the six stations are coming down. As part of a major renovation effort, the hospital is removing the Plexiglas cages. To fix the leaky toilets and showers, the bathrooms are being gutted and replaced. Hallways are being repainted and detailed with stenciling. Patients’ rooms are getting new paint and more shelving. Even the garden area is to be spruced up, with new benches and plants. Renovations for each unit will take about one month; the repairs are slated to be finished by March.
Attorney Perry Habib, who represents Woodhull patients for the state-run Mental Hygiene Legal Services, says the changes have already improved the quality of life on the ward. “From my eye, it seems more pleasant. There’s a feeling of openness, less of a fortress mentality,” says Habib.
Hospital officials wouldn’t confirm whether the sudden spate of renovations is in response to the article, which garnered accolades from the American Psychiatric Association and won a letter of praise from noted neurologist Oliver Sacks. But back in May, Woodhull executive director Cynthia Carrington-Murray promised City Limits that the problems we uncovered would be investigated and addressed. “We’re looking into the allegations in the article,” Carrington-Murray said. “We’re looking at what we have done and what we plan to do. Some of it is worth looking at. We’re meeting with staff to identify the things we need to work on.”
But even though the press office couldn’t tell us who was responsible for the renovations, their billing department knew what the article was worth: $8,400 for Heldman’s seven-and-a-half days.