Making the headlines: When bomb-maker Morales escaped from hospital

My early clinical years were spent at Bellevue Hospital, one of the oldest, largest, and most prestigious municipal hospitals in the U.S.

The patient population came from the lower classes in Manhattan which, at the time, included Blacks, Hispanics, some Asians and many denizens and alcoholics from the Bowery and the Village. These were to be my patients for the next five years of my life.

M.K., my first patient, was an attractive 24-year-old black woman hospitalized for the removal of her gallbladder. I’ll admit I approached her bedside with some trepidation as for the rest of her hospital stay I would be drawing her blood, checking her clinical status and being her interface with the rest of the medical team.

On her side table was a framed portrait of an attractive young black adolescent. In an effort to establish rapport, I asked who the young lady was and she replied “my daughter”. I asked her how old her daughter was and she said “12 years old”. Forgetting her own age, I responded, “You don’t look old enough to have a twelve year old daughter.” To this day I remember the glowering stare as she said, “Doc, are you trying to be funny?” That was my introduction to cultural considerations in the practice of medicine.

Bellevue housed a prison ward. An inmate of any of the city’s prisons who required hospital care was transferred to the Bellevue prison ward.

The medical team had to pass through three sets of locked gates to get to their patients. As harried and overworked interns, we regarded these safeguards with disgust.

The epitome of our frustration occurred with the arrest of William Morales, a Puerto Rican terrorist who lost both hands when a bomb he was building exploded.

He was admitted to the Bellevue Hospital Prison ward and as he had not yet been indicted he was still in the custody of the New York Police department.

Gaining access to the ward required, in addition to the standard three gates, being vetted by machine-gun toting special guards of the police department. Now getting to and from the prison ward took major clumps of our very scarce time.

Imagine our frustration when days after his indictment, on transfer to the Department of Prisons, this captive escaped from the second floor by sliding down a rope made up from bandages. The story in the press – as shown below – suggested that he might have had “inside help”.

Some of the Bellevue stories had a nice ending. Within the prison ward there was a hierarchy of control among the prisoners.

There was one alpha male who commanded subordinates, who enforced control and order in the ward. on one occasion early in my assignment to the prison ward I needed a particular patient. His neighbor told me he was in the bathroom, a large cavernous space that accommodated both toilets and showers.

As I started to go into the bathroom, I was stopped by one of the guards who told me in no uncertain terms, “Staff never go into the bathroom. We don’t know and we don’t want to know what goes on in there. If you need someone in the bathroom, ask another prisoner to go in to get him. Even we stay out”. And so it was. I never violated that law.

Prisoner X was my patient and was scheduled for open heart surgery. Preoperatively, he ruled the ward with an iron hand. He had a forceful aggressive personality, but I never understood why his minions jumped to do his bidding. I suspect I was better off not knowing.

Most amazingly, after his surgery, he returned to the prison ward with multiple drains, tubes and Intravenous lines and yet, throughout the period of his limited mobility, he continued his absolute rule.

After his recovery and his eventual discharge from prison he continued under my care for many years at the Thursday Night Bellevue Hospital Cardiology Clinic. I bore witness over the next several years to a metamorphosis. He came to the clinic well dressed and soft spoken. His medical condition remained stable and our biannual meetings evolved into personal updates.

He went on to straighten out his life and manifesting his leadership skills (and I hope none of his other more violent skills) eventually owned the largest Cadillac dealership in Harlem, which, I was told, he ruled with a velvet glove.

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About the author

Morty Leibowitz

Morty Leibowitz, a Professor of Internal Medicine and Cardiology at New York University, came to live in Israel with his wife Ruth in 1996. A resident of Raanana, he founded the Cardiac Prevention ...
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