2009-08-03 04:05:26 UTC
Sidney Zion, Writer Who Crusaded to Reduce Doctors' Hours,
Dies at 75
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
Published: August 2, 2009
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 on Sunday afternoon at
Calvary Hospital in Brooklyn. He was 75 and lived in
The cause was bladder cancer, said his son Adam Zion.
A confidant of writers and power brokers in New York, Mr.
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 habitué of Gallagher's, Elaine's,
Sardi's and other celebrity watering holes, Mr. 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 Ms. 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. Mr. 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
Mr. 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.
In 1995, a jury returned a mixed verdict in the Zion case,
saying that the hospital was not to blame but that an intern
and two doctors had contributed to her death by giving her a
drug that could be fatal for patients taking
antidepressants. It imposed $750,000 in damages, but cut the
award in half, saying Ms. Zion was equally to blame for not
telling doctors that she had taken cocaine and prescription
drugs. The trial judge later threw out the finding that Ms.
Zion was half responsible for her death, but kept the award
Sidney Zion was born in Passaic, N.J., on Nov. 14, 1933, a
son of Nathan and Anne Zion. His father was a dentist in
Passaic, where the boy grew up. He graduated from the
University of Pennsylvania, and in 1958 from the Yale Law
In 1963, Mr. Zion married the former Elsa Ruth Heister. She
died in 2005. Mr. Zion is survived by his sons, Adam, of
Brooklyn, and Jed, of Los Angeles, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Zion practiced criminal law in northern New Jersey in
the late 1950s and in the early 1960s was a federal
prosecutor in New Jersey. In 1962, Victor Navasky, a
colleague who later became editor and publisher of The
Nation, asked him to write a parody of the journalist Murray
Kempton for his satirical magazine Monocle's
newspaper-strike parody of The New York Post, called The New
York Pest. It was his springboard to journalism.
In a roller-coaster career, Mr. Zion was a reporter for The
New York Post, a legal affairs correspondent for The Times,
co-founder of the short-lived magazine Scanlan's Monthly and
at various times a columnist for The SoHo Weekly News, New
York magazine, The Daily News and The New York Post. He also
wrote for The New York Observer, The Nation and the Op-Ed
page of The Times.
In 1971, working freelance, Mr. Zion called a radio
talk-show host in New York and revealed what he said was
common knowledge in media circles - the identity of Daniel
Ellsberg, the military analyst, as the source of the
Pentagon Papers, the classified study detailing Washington
deceit in Vietnam, then being published by The Times and The
Washington Post. Many journalists regarded the disclosure as
a breach of professional ethics, and Mr. Zion said he was a
pariah among colleagues for a time.
Mr. Zion completed and published "The Autobiography of Roy
Cohn" (1988) two years after Mr. Cohn's death. Mr. Cohn, a
friend of Mr. Zion's, had incurred the enmity of the left by
prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed
for espionage, and acting as chief counsel for Senator
Joseph R. McCarthy during his Communist witch-hunt years.
Mr. Zion also wrote "Read All About It! The Collected
Adventures of a Maverick Reporter" (1982); "Markers" (1990),
a novel about reporters, lawyers and mobsters; "Trust Your
Mother but Cut the Cards" (1993), a volume of essays; and
"Loyalty and Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob"
In the early 1980s, Mr. Zion owned Broadway Joe, a
steakhouse and hangout for theater people on West 46th
With his free-flowing celebrity chatter, political gossip,
media scuttlebutt and Mafia stories, he was often likened to
Damon Runyon, the newspaperman and short-story writer of the
1930s and '40s, whose Broadway characters included wiseguys
and dolls, mouthpieces and scribes: Sidney Zion's kind of