How we saved our hospital

By Julie Semente, RN, Secretary, LICH Executive Committee

Last January, we opened the morning newspaper and found out that SUNY planned to close LICH, the hospital where I’ve helped save lives for 30 years. I immediately knew the effort that would have to be put forth to fight for LICH’s life. Slumping into a chair, I said “I can’t do this again,” but I knew that it had to be done and I, we, would do it. LICH nurses never walk away from a fight.

This wasn’t the first time we’ve had to protect LICH patients. In 1996 we began an 18 month battle against a new CEO after he decimated the nursing department and tried to break our union. We won that fight and sent him back to the South. Then in 2008, Continuum tried to shut down maternal/child services at LICH. We stopped that too, but there were just a few of us leading that fight and we had to do a lot ourselves.

When SUNY announced their plan to close LICH, we spread the word and organized our colleagues, through meetings, lunch breaks, phone calls, texts, and social media. That week in January, we leafleted the community, but residents didn't seem interested. We decided to shrug off discouragement and get them interested.

A week later we gathered on a corner for a speak-out in below zero weather. NYSNA board member Gwen Lancaster came from Manhattan with her husband. She came not only as a board member, but also as a family member of a LICH patient, and we appreciated that. For the first time, we felt that our leadership was paying attention to our struggles in Brooklyn.

Early on, we formed a coalition with the doctors and service union to strategize this war, and then invited community leaders and officials to our meetings to increase their awareness of the situation and bring them on board. For SUNY’s first unlawful vote to close LICH in early February, we requested a NYSNA bus and opened it to everyone in the hospital and community. Even managers got on that bus. That set the tone for the entire campaign. NYSNA took the lead and we’ve carried our colleagues and neighbors with us, literally, wherever we needed to go to keep up the fight.

We started by pulling everyone inside the hospital together. From there we built community support. We reached out to the local reporters and community members. We asked to speak at community organization meetings. Sometimes we crashed meetings, leafletted outside their doors before and after, and wedged our way onto the agendas for different community groups. We met with elected officials, gave press interviews, spoke on radio and TV. On Valentine's Day we held a community informational night at the synagogue and 300 people attended. The more we did, the more the community became aware offered support. We put them to work with us collecting petitions, leafletting, and posting signs in local shops.

Soon, we were being invited to speak to community and religious groups. With NYSNA’s help, the neighborhood children twice held their own protest rallies, the adorable “Baby Brigaide Stroller March.” Then, by mid-April, 500 people came out on a Sunday for a march for LICH across Southwest Brooklyn.

Right from the beginning, it wasn’t just a few LICH nurses doing the work this time. Everyone did their part. Members who were never active before were now stepping up, fighting for LICH all over the state. We had the support of the entire bargaining unit and our union. Seeing resources that we had never had at LICH before, now being made available to us, showed our members that our union was behind us every step of the way and that kept them energized to continue fighting.

We’tve long voiced dissatisfaction that Brooklyn wasn’tt getting the attention we needed from the association. But this time was different. Our executive director was there with us fighting day and night, as were our reps. Board members showed support for LICH nurses, we had anything we needed, and numerous NYSNA staff were with us daily helping internally, to inform, strategize, and mobilize. Together, we built a movement.

We went from getting no attention to leading a campaign that influenced the mayoral election, that has been on the front page of major newspapers, on every major TV news station, and for which nurses, elected leaders, and community members have even gotten arrested.

By June, when SUNY started unlawfully moving patients out of LICH, we had built such an effective rapid response team that we were able to mobilize a rally with 200 people, elected officials, and tons of press within one hour. I had texted a “call to arms” to our NYSNA rep and 10 colleagues who were off that day, as soon as I found out that ambulances were secretly on their way to LICH to remove patients and shut down units. By the time I got downstairs an hour later, the ambulances were lined up, the TV news was filming, and there was a full blown demonstration commencing. Incredible.

Even July’s heat-wave didn’t stop LICH nurses from leading almost daily rallies with community members and elected officials all protesting the banning of ambulances from our hospital during that public health emergency as a crisis spread across Brooklyn.

Our efforts resulted in two Supreme Court judges ruling that LICH cannot be closed. Today, the ambulances are gradually coming back, patients are being admitted, and there's hope for LICH.

The fight for LICH has been a fight for every hospital in this state. When we won our lawsuit challenging the Department of Health’s approval process for hospital closure plans, we put a stop to all hospital closures in NY state. NYSNA’s fight at LICH created a moratorium on hospital closures in all of New York! This fight is so much bigger than us now – it’s for patients everywhere. Our fight is not over, but through the perseverance of our nurses, the dedication of NYSNA staff, and persistence of NYSNA, we are winning.

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