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A Father's Grief, a Father's Fight : Litigation: In 1984, Libby Zion was hospitalized with an earache and fever--and died. Her dad blames doctors. They blame cocaine. Her death brought new rules--and a lengthy lawsuit.

February 01, 1995|DAN COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — On the night of March 4, 1984, Libby Zion, an 18-year-old college student suffering from a high fever and an earache, was brought to New York Hospital by her parents. After eight hours, she was dead.

Ten years of bitter litigation later, there is still no clear explanation for what killed the apparently healthy teen-ager. It does seem clear that, like many patients who enter a hospital in the middle of the night, Libby was treated by a series of busy doctors, none of whom had much time to focus on her condition.

One thing seems even more certain: Of all the patients who have come through its doors, the hospital could not have picked a worse one to lose inexplicably than Libby Zion.

Her death touched off a decade-long battle that has produced sweeping changes in the working conditions of doctors in New York City hospitals. The civil suit brought by her family against New York Hospital is only now reaching a conclusion in a Manhattan courtroom.

Leading the charge is Libby's father, Sidney, now a New York Daily News columnist. He has pursued the case with the zeal of a grieving father and the skills of a veteran journalist with a lifetime of experience in spinning the media.

Zion accuses the hospital and the physicians who treated his daughter of what amounts to medical murder. He refers to Libby's death as an execution and was outraged when a Manhattan grand jury that probed her death failed to return criminal indictments.

The defense has been equally ferocious. Lawyers for the hospital contend that cocaine killed Libby, and that she concealed her use of the drug from the physicians who treated her. Private details of her emotional problems have been read into the record of a trial beamed across the nation on Court TV.

Libby, a bright and creative young woman who hoped to grow up and make a name for herself, is famous indeed these days. An entire generation of New York journalists has heard the story of her death from her father, who, friends say, still breaks into tears when he thinks about his daughter.

Hospital administrators must now schedule their interns and residents under the "Zion" rules. And every member of the New York health community knows her as a physician's nightmare--the patient who suddenly goes "sour" for no clear reason, sending her care-givers into an eternity of career-threatening litigation.

*

At the center of this medical and legal storm is Sidney Zion, a pink-skinned, balding, bespectacled father of three. This mild-looking man in a conservative gray suit from J. Press can be seen nervously crossing and uncrossing his legs while sipping mineral water from a plastic bottle in the courtroom where Zion vs. New York Hospital is being tried.

But appearances can be deceiving, as the powers-that-be at New York Hospital have discovered. Zion, 61, is a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking novelist, lawyer, journalist, former prosecutor, confidant of the late Roy Cohn, and friend to those in high and low places.

Zion was born in Passaic, N.J., the son of a dentist. His harsh New Jersey accent withstood an Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania and the Yale Law School.

After a stint as a federal prosecutor in New Jersey, he turned to journalism. In the years before Libby's death, he worked for the New York Post, the New York Times and New York Magazine; now, for the Daily News. He is the author of an autobiographical novel called "Markers" and "The Autobiography of Roy Cohn," the memoirs of the notorious aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy.

He is a man driven by passions large and small that include a deep love of Israel ("Sidney has never gotten around to worrying about Gentiles," says a longtime friend) and unflagging devotion to the New York Giants. He rails against "Smoke Nazis" (those who would restrict smoking in public places) and Israel's "sellout" to the PLO.

But the crusade of Zion's life began with a phone call from his son on the night of March 4, 1984.

Libby, a student at Bennington College in Vermont, was in bed at the family's apartment on the Upper West Side. She was sick with a high fever. Zion's son said Libby was looking terrible.

Zion and his wife, Elsa, left a dinner party and rushed back to the apartment, where they discovered their son had not been exaggerating. Libby was "burning up" with a fever. She was also extremely agitated, a condition the hospital would later argue was consistent with a cocaine reaction.

While Elsa frantically searched for a thermometer, Sidney phoned the family physician, Dr. Raymond Sherman, who advised him to take Libby to New York Hospital.

They arrived about 11:30 p.m. Libby was admitted by a young intern named Dr. Maurice Leonard. She had a temperature of 103.5 and a rapid pulse and respiration. According to Leonard, Libby said she was using a drug called Nardil, an anti-depressant. (The hospital says Libby failed to tell doctors about other drugs she was using.)

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