2009-08-03 19:12:52 UTC
Sidney Zion, Writer Who Crusaded to Reduce Doctors' Hours, Dies at 75
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN [New York
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 [August 2, 2009] 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, 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
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
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
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" (1994).
In the early 1980s, Mr. Zion owned Broadway Joe, a steakhouse and hangout
for theater people on West 46th Street.
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