Sidney Zion, NY writer, dies; daughter’s death helped spur limits on intern, resident hours

Sidney Zion dies; NY writer spurred medical reform

NEW YORK — Sidney Zion, a journalist whose family tragedy helped lead to changes in how many hours medical residents work, has died. He was 75.

Zion, who had written for The New York Times, the Daily News and the New York Post, died Sunday at Calvary Hospital in Brooklyn. He had been suffering from bladder cancer, said his son, Adam Zion.

In March 1984, Zion took his 18-year-old daughter, Libby, to New York Hospital because she was agitated and suffering from high fever. She died the next morning of cardiopulmonary collapse.

Zion blamed doctors for her death, saying they had given her a painkiller that can react badly with an antidepressant she told doctors she was taking. He also charged that the hospital systematically overworked and undersupervised its young doctors-in-training.

“That was the big fight of his life,” Adam Zion said.

Sidney Zion and his wife sued the hospital and the doctors in 1985. A jury returned a split verdict 10 years later, deciding that the hospital, its resident doctors and Libby herself were all partly to blame for her death. The jurors accepted a defense claim that Libby had failed to disclose cocaine use.

In 1987, a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges, but concluded that Libby might have lived if she had gotten experienced and professional care. The grand jury also suggested limiting work hours for medical residents.

New York Hospital paid a small fine and admitted to procedural lapses in connection to the case.

In 1989, New York became the first state to regulate intern and resident hours. They were limited to 24-hour shifts, not the 36-hour ones that were common. The average work week was capped at 80 hours instead of the usual 100. More supervision by senior physicians was also required. Nationwide regulations came in 2003.

For years after Libby’s death, people would call Zion to relate their own stories, his son said.

“The depth of what happened with the New York Hospital was that it consumed every aspect of his life,” Adam Zion said. “His phone was always listed and they would call the house at all hours, telling us about their family members who had passed away.”

Born in Passaic, N.J., Zion started his professional life as an attorney, graduating from Yale Law School and working as a federal prosecutor before making the switch to writing. He was a reporter at the Times before becoming a columnist at the Daily News and later at the Post.

Zion is also survived by his son, Jed Zion. His wife died in 2005.

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