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Sidney Zion, 75; worked to cut doctors’ long hours

Mr. Zion was also a reporter for the New York Times. Mr. Zion was also a reporter for the New York Times. (Bill Aller/New York Times)
By Robert D. McFadden
New York Times / August 5, 2009

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NEW YORK - Sidney Zion, a journalist and author who turned his daughter’s death at New York Hospital in 1984 into a campaign that led to national reforms in the training, workload, and supervision of young doctors, died Sunday afternoon at Calvary Hospital in Brooklyn. He was 75 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was bladder cancer, said his son, Adam.

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 lawyer Roy Cohn.

Rumpled and Runyonesque, a habitue 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 abuse, 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 she 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 that Libby 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 she was half responsible for her death, but kept the award at $375,000.

Sidney Zion was born in Passaic, N.J., 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 Yale Law School.

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 a roller-coaster career, Mr. Zion was a reporter for The New York Post, a legal affairs correspondent for The Times, and at various times a columnist for The SoHo Weekly News, New York magazine, The Daily News, and The New York Post.

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 people.