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Everything Must Go

Good news if you're in the market for a tiny titanium bipolar brain cauterizer.

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The first-floor hallway snaking around the edge of Ravenswood Medical Center's Building Two is lined with desks, filing cabinets, book-cases, tables, and storage lockers--all for sale. Among waiting-room chairs and wire shelving are a washing machine and two dryers, a Wurlitzer organ, and two shelves of LPs (Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits, Semper Fidelis: The Marches of John Philip Sousa, Cabaret) for a buck apiece. A room off the hallway is filled with Magnavox TVs ($25-$40) set at a fixed volume--loud. Another room holds wheelchairs ($75).

After Advocate Health Care sold its six-building Ravenswood campus to a developer in May, it hired a company that specializes in selling off the guts of closed hospitals. "The health care business is overbuilt," says Frank Long, president of International Content Liquidations, Inc. "There's too many beds." On Thursday, June 13, ICL opened the monthlong Ravenswood Medical Center Liquidation Sale after putting a price tag on everything from the weight speculums ($5) to the adjustable beds ($500-$800) to the Sarns 9000 Profusion Pump ($14,000).

Long has been overseeing the sale from an office off the first-floor hall. There's a showroom and cashier station in the hospital's main entrance, where customers can get a quick look at some of the wares. Beds, TVs, chairs, and filing cabinets are on the left, computer monitors and printers are on the right. Buildings Two and Four have become warehouses, open to inspection. In a room marked Medical Supplies, ICL director of liquidation sales Bob Grzenia has been taking calls on his cell phone all day, from doctors, hospitals, clinics, even veterinarians, all looking for secondhand deals. The sale has been on for only one week, and already a third of the surgical instruments are gone.

Just yesterday a Nigerian doctor was happily stacking Personnel Protection Supplies containers onto a cart. He was sending the plastic boxes, filled with gowns, gloves, masks, and biohazard bags, to an AIDS clinic back home. Now Grzenia is wheeling an anesthesia system ($3,200) into the "hot spot" facing the doorway, where an eye laser ($3,700) was purchased earlier. Four rows of sophisticated machinery are priced to move, including a $350 blood gas monitor, a $1,200 bispectral index monitor, a $2,000 intra-aortic balloon pump, a $2,500 Stabilet infant warmer, and a $3,500 orthopedic operating room table.

Stainless steel surgical instruments are displayed on shelves: trays filled with forceps and tweezers, boxes of bone-saw blades and burls, and scissor-handled, sharp-edged scoops for cutting out tissue samples. Prices range widely; forceps go from $5 to $65. "There's the Rolls-Royce version and then the Yugo version," says Grzenia, who was a cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary technologist before he got into hospital liquidation. Many of the instruments are highly specialized--tiny titanium bipolar brain cauterizers, which would sell for $1,100 new, are marked down to $200. Some items are so unusual even Grzenia and some visiting surgeons can't figure out what they're for.

To the untrained eye, the room might as well be filled with state-of-the-art instruments of torture. A chest retractor looks like it belongs in a mechanic's garage, not an emergency room. There's a small gynecological examining tool that Grzenia jokingly identifies as a "pedophile's speculum." He picks up what looks like a shiny pair of double-hinged hedge clippers from a thoracotomy tray. Their smooth, powerful action feels like a triumph of engineering. "This here is for cutting bone and cartilage," he says. "These are works of art."

A Dr. Levitin--who believes herself to be the only Russian-speaking general surgeon in Chicagoland--browses the shelves, looking for tools to stock her Wheeling office, where she performs minor procedures. She finds a good deal on a $5 skin stapler, but the hemostats seem a bit steep at $25. She'll try to bargain.

ICL discourages neighborhood customers from wandering into the medical supplies room. Grzenia says there is a population of medical equipment groupies interested in surgical tools for their aesthetic value, "but we try to kind of isolate it from the general public." Yet occasionally nonmedical uses can be found for some of the stuff. Grzenia once sold an autopsy table for $300 to man who planned to use it as a salad bar in his restaurant.

Meanwhile, in an administrative office down the hall, Joanne Festal shops for furniture for the church she attends--Our Lady of Lourdes, just east of here on Ashland. She's happy to find a desk and matching wastebasket for the church reception room, but mourns the loss of the hospital. "Some of our people at our church work here--or they did work here," she says. "Our priests come over and take care of the patients. It's sad, because it has been in the community for such a long time."

Portions of the hospital are still open to patients. Earlier in the week a woman holding an infant rushed into the main entrance and had to be escorted to the emergency room. Staff wander through the sale area between the professional building at Wilson and Damen and other parts of the hospital. "They walk in," says Grzenia, "and there's a real culture shock to see their place of business look like a garage sale."

As the sale has progressed, ICL has consolidated the remaining merchandise on the lower floors of Buildings Two and Four, closing the upper floors. But it's easy to wander onto those empty wards and see what the hospital staff left behind. A package of bed restraints lies outside the elevator on the fourth floor of Building Four, next to a broken chair and a lead X-ray apron. This is Dual Diagnosis Psychiatry, and of all the departments it seems as if it were abandoned in the highest state of panic. Paper towels are strewn on the floor. Cafeteria trays with smashed cigarette butts are left in the nurse's station. In a bright room with large windows, checkers and jigsaw puzzle pieces are scattered everywhere. A large sketchpad leans against the wall. On one page someone has markered: "Remember, you are your own best thing." On another page: "Worries: 1. How important is this to me? 2. Do I have control over this?"

A young man named John and his friend scavenge the hallway with a cardboard box; so far they've got a telephone and some clipboards. John, who was born here 24 years ago, heard a disturbing rumor from his mother-in-law that patient files had been left behind all over the hospital for just anyone to see. "When she told me about the files and whatnot I wanted to bring a camera," he says. "But I was afraid I'd get jumped."

His mother-in-law was right. File folders are fanned out on the floor of the deserted gastroenterology department, along with photos of an endoscopy and an architectural blueprint of the fifth floor of Building Four. The operative report for one patient who underwent an esophagogastroscopy reads that she was "given a Xylocaine gargle to numb her." Then, apparently, a scope was slid down her esophagus to gauge the progress of Barrett's syndrome, a deformation of the cells in the esophageal lining that frequently leads to cancer. Luckily for her, her doctor noted, "whereas fingers of Barrett's were invading the distal squamous mucosa before, now there were several islands of apparent Barrett's epithelium, indicating some healing."

Not everyone got good news before the office was abandoned. Someone has scrawled the words "HELP ME!" in black marker on the white door of a supply cabinet. Other offices contain evidence of the previous occupants: a pile of X-ray films, a stack of billing records, a plastic box labeled "head measuring tape," empty syringes, coffee cups, Styrofoam takeout containers, a hand-drawn diagram of the stomach, a tank of carbon dioxide. The fifth-floor hallways of Building Four are dark, muggy, and deathly silent.

In a staff lounge over in Building Two is a junkie's jackpot--a pile of unused sterile syringes on the floor next to some bingo cards, Christmas decorations, and a Rubbermaid toilet chair. In the nurse's station a flyer hangs above a cabinet: "Caring is what we do best," it says.

One floor below, the pediatric unit is cool and dark--except for the nursery, which is crammed with 20 empty bassinets ($125). Inside it's hot and stuffy and smells vaguely of barbecued chicken. At the end of one hallway an alarm beeps insistently from behind a locked doorway, but there is no one around to respond.

Weekdays are slow at the sale, but there are a handful of people scouring the first floor, where most of the merchandise is. A sour-faced old man pokes around the Medical Management and Quality Improvement office. Bookcases and filing cabinets are for sale inside, but there are no price tags on the manila folders marked "RHMC Board of Directors Meeting" or "AHC Ethics & Values Council," or the box of files with doctors' names on them containing disciplinary records, lawsuit depositions, termination letters, and complaints from patients. In a photocopy of a handwritten letter dated May 13, 1997, a patient accuses her doctor of fondling and sucking her nipple during a breast exam.

Pat Fraser, who like John was born at this hospital, is here with her mother, also Pat Fraser. She was looking for filing cabinets, but felt too uneasy and angry to go on. "It's like one of those movies where everybody just disappears," she says. "That's just the way it feels. It's like the employees, one day they just got an announcement--'Everyone leave!' And they just left. There's files with people's papers in them! It's really sick. Really sick. This is creepy. And this is sad because we've lost this hospital, we lost Edgewater. I don't care that Edgewater was a pit. It was still a hospital, and if we have a major attack or something where are we gonna put people? Where are they gonna go? We have no hospitals left. This is insane. Absolutely insane. Greed caused this."

Frank Long has taken part in 74 hospital liquidations, and he understands how tough a hospital closing is on its employees and patients--staff members are out of work, neighbors are confused. "The community should have some idea of what's going on," he says. "If there is something like what we're doing here, they generally want to attend. We're putting on the sale for Advocate, [but] rather than back-door the stuff and take it off-site somewhere, we're giving the community a shot." But only until mid-July, after which ICL will load out whatever remains.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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