Sidney Zion, crusader to cut doctors' hours, dies at 75
By ROBERT D. MCFADDEN, New York Times First published in print: Tuesday, August 4, 2009
NEW YORK -- Sidney Zion, a journalist and author who turned his daughter's death at New York Hospital in 1984 into a crusade that led to national reforms in the training, workload and supervision of young doctors, died Sunday afternoon at Calvary Hospital in Brooklyn. He was 75 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause was bladder cancer, said his son Adam Zion. A confidant of writers and power brokers in New York, Zion was a federal prosecutor and criminal lawyer early in a many-sided career that included jobs as a legal reporter for The New York Times and columnist for The Daily News and The New York Post. He helped found a magazine and wrote a novel, a book on gangsters, a volume of essays and a biography of the lawyer Roy Cohn.
Rumpled and Runyonesque, a habitue of Gallagher's, Elaine's, Sardi's and other celebrity watering holes, Zion was a loud, cigar-smoking, storytelling die-hard New York Giants fan who railed against what he called fitness fascists, passionately defended Israel and counted horse-players, mobsters, actors and politicians among his friends.
But his life was transformed on the night of March 4, 1984, when his 18-year-old daughter, Libby, a Bennington College freshman with a history of depression and cocaine use, was admitted to New York Hospital with fever, chills and agitation. Her condition was not diagnosed, but two interns gave her a painkiller and sedative, a plan approved by phone by a senior clinician who had treated members of the family, and Zion was tied down to prevent injury. She died eight hours after admission.
The case raised troubling questions about the long hours and workloads of interns and residents in teaching hospitals, and about their supervision and the prevention of medical errors. Zion, then a columnist for The Daily News, and his wife, Elsa, a city official and former publishing executive, sued the hospital and four doctors, charging gross negligence in their daughter's death.
They also campaigned for greater supervision and workload limits on interns and residents, who often put in 100 to 120 hours a week and 36 at a stretch. The case generated newspaper and magazine articles, television specials, an intense debate in the medical community and a book, "The Girl Who Died Twice" (1995), by Natalie Robins.
In 1987, a grand jury rejected medical "murder" charges that Zion had called for, but said hospital errors may have contributed to the death. The hospital admitted some errors and was fined $13,000 by the state Health Department. In 1989, the state limited interns and residents to 80 hours weekly and 24 hours consecutively, and said senior doctors must be in hospitals at all times. Similar standards were mandated nationally in 2003 by a council that accredits graduate medical schools.