New York paramedic reflects on high-profile cases and 47 years in EMS
John Filangeri talks about memorable calls and recreational fluid challenges
The mid-1970s were difficult times for New York City and public servants, like paramedic John Filangeri. “Crime was out of control,” says the Brooklyn native, who started as an EMT in 1971. “We had the Son of Sam killings in ’76, then the blackout of ’77. Plus, the summers were unbearably hot.”
While the city dealt with an aging infrastructure and near-bankruptcy, Filangeri and his colleagues at St. Clare’s Hospital in midtown Manhattan tried to ease the tension, and perhaps the temperature, with a schoolyard-style water fight. Their opponent? The police.
“It started with water pistols, then escalated,” Filangeri says, after pointing out municipal vehicles had no air conditioning in those days. “The few tourists around couldn’t believe it when some cop would creep up on a parked ambulance and toss a bucket of water through the window. Or maybe they’d see an ambulance crew spray the police with a fire extinguisher.
“Practical jokes were the order of the day, like putting soap suds in various fountains around the city. I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations is up on that one. At least I hope so.”
Shenanigans aside, Filangeri and his fellow pranksters from NYPD ended up working together on a couple of high-profile cases in the ’80s.
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“I was riding out of St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan when we got a call for multiple casualties on the subway,” says Filangeri, who had graduated from Beekman Downtown Hospital’s paramedic program in 1976. “It turned out to be the Bernhard Goetz case.”
Goetz had shot four young men he claimed had tried to rob him shortly after he’d boarded a train in December, 1984. The incident stirred a national debate on self defense versus vigilante justice.
Filangeri summarizes the scene: “One guy was hit straight in the chest, another got it through the arm and into the chest, the third was shot in the back and the fourth through his side. I took the last one. He was paralyzed. When I asked him what happened, he said the other three were hassling Goetz for money.”
Goetz’s lawyer wanted to use that statement in his client’s defense, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. “Legal scholars still argue about that,” Filangeri notes.
The other case, in November of 1987, was unusual from the start. “It was the end of the shift,” says Filangeri. “Normally, they give those calls to someone else, but it was a child not breathing, so they expedited it.”
“We got to this old building on West 10th Street that used to be Mark Twain’s house. My partner and I went upstairs with two police officers and knocked. The woman who answered, I can’t even describe how terrible she looked – like something out of a horror movie. She had this weird, frizzled grey hair and her face was a mess – black and blue, with an open fracture of the nose. It was Hedda Nussbaum.”
Nussbaum was the domestic partner of Joel Steinberg, a disbarred attorney and father of two illegally adopted children, Mitchell and Lisa.
“Steinberg came walking out of the dark apartment with this naked six-year-old girl (Lisa) who was dirty and all scratched up,” Filangeri says. “She wasn’t breathing right. Steinberg said she’d choked on her food, but I didn’t feel any obstruction when I was bagging her.
“Once we brought her downstairs and got her into the light, we could see she had bruises all over, including a big one on her head. We told the cops it was a child-abuse case, then took her to the hospital. She didn’t make it.”
When police returned to the scene to check on the welfare of Mitchell and to look for Steinberg, the 46-year-old was leaving the apartment with $40,000 in cash, a loaded gun and some cocaine. He was arrested and charged with murder initially, but was convicted of manslaughter. The case made headlines across the U.S.
“Steinberg insisted my partner and I had dropped Lisa and that’s how she got hurt,” Filangeri says. “He even threatened us from prison.”
Although Filangeri had his share of infamous patients, ask him about his most memorable calls, and the first one he’ll mention involved a regular guy and an irregular outcome.
“What do we do now?”
“It was a cardiac arrest at the Times Square subway station in July of ’74” Filangeri recalls. “In those days, we’d grab a doctor from the ER.
“The doc had given intracardiac epi and we had just shocked for, like, the third time, when we got a pulse back and the patient started to breathe on his own. That had never happened to any of us before. Someone asked, ‘What do we do now?’ A cop at the scene said, ‘Maybe you should take him to the hospital.’ It was almost funny. The guy made a full recovery.”
Filangeri and his partners used to keep track of how long it took each of them to get 100 cardiac arrests. “I needed about 16 months,” Filangeri says. “One of our guys did it in nine.”
At 66, Filangeri has moved from the field to the classroom, where he teaches ACLS for New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital. “I’m sort of retired,” he said.
“I have great memories of the people I’ve worked with and the people I’ve helped. I’m not so egotistical to think I ever saved a life without being part of a team. Just knowing we made bad situations better for some patients is satisfying enough.”