Dead Bennington Alumni: Libby Zion (1965-1984)

by Celene Barrera '15

Author’s note: Libby Zion did not finish attending Bennington College due to unfortunate circumstances, but I am nevertheless claiming her as one of our own.

Libby's father, Sidney Zion. Photo Credit: Don Hogan Charles / NY TImes

Libby's father, Sidney Zion. Photo Credit: Don Hogan Charles / NY TImes

Google search Libby Zion and controversy follows. Her story is documented around the web in great, yet mixed detail. In March of 1984, when Zion was a freshman at Bennington, she was experiencing a high fever and went to New York for treatment. Upon arrival, a second-year resident, Dr. Gregg Stone, prescribed Demerol (meperidine) - a drug that, when combined with antidepressant phenelzine (which Zion was on at the time), can prove to be lethal. The Demerol was intended to assuage the shakes that Zion was developing, yet her fever only intensified and as her agitation grew, she began to pull on her intravenous tubes. The residents were called back into her room and Zion was restrained. She later suffered from cardiac arrest and was not able to be resuscitated.  

After Libby died, her father, journalist and lawyer Sidney Zion, was furious. He immediately began preparing for a wrongful death case. The trial was held from November 10, 1994 to February 6, 1995. The prosecution argued that the Demerol prescribed to Libby killed her. However, the supervising physician, Dr. Raymond Sherman, testified that he had no knowledge of Stone prescribing Demerol, so the accounts given by Sherman and Stone were contradictory. The defense also stated that Libby had taken cocaine and other prescription drugs (primarily phenelzine) that she had not told doctors about.

What made the case controversial were the high levels of interaction Libby had with residents instead of attending physicians. At the time, residents typically worked tedious shifts that could stretch into the 24+ hour range. Stone and another resident, Luise Weinstein, were responsible for around 40 patients on another floor and spent minimal time with Zion themselves, prescribing some drugs to nurses via telephone.

The indictment was malpractice resulting in wrongful death. The hospital was absolved of blame and the Zion family was awarded $375,000 (lowered from $750,000 at the time of verdict) for pain and suffering.

After indictment, New York State Health Commissioner David Axelrod addressed issues of residency by creating a blue-ribbon panel headed by physician Dr. Bertrand Bell. The Bell Commission (formally known as Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Emergency Services) recommended that residents could not work more than 80 hours a week or more than 24 consecutive hours "and that attending physicians” needed to be physically present in the hospital at all times.  These recommendations were not only adopted by New York State, but were also made mandatory nationwide in 2003 by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.  

I wonder what Libby would have done if she had graduated from Bennington. She was brought up in the 80s, the “primetime” of Bennington, so to speak. A brief investigation of the Bennington Before the Purge Facebook page reveals that she kept to herself and was often off campus on the weekends. When thinking about the amount of success that certain Bennington alumni have had, the list is varied - books, installations, businesses…etc. And of course, the opposite is true as well: success isn’t exactly an end result for everyone. So maybe Libby wouldn’t have done much, but maybe she would have done something.

I find it fascinating to view the legacy that her parents created for her; the Zion case changed the standards for medical residency practices across the country. Call it morbid, but because she was one of ours, this law is a small but important part of our college’s history. The way her family pursued legal action not only in Libby’s name but also for medical residency reform in general reminds me of the idea that Bennington is constantly involved in Public Action. This involvement isn’t always initiated by students, nor is it always directly correlated with the purpose of engaging with public action specifically. Instead, I am reminded of the closing statement of the Bennington-famous TED talk that former President Coleman gave in 2009: “So what do you when you’re overwhelmed? Well, you have two things: you have a mind, and you have other people. Start with that, and change the world.”

So, here’s to saluting a small yet fascinating tidbit of Bennington past and present. Whenever you see a resident that doesn’t look like they’re about to keel over from exhaustion, remember the Zion law. The Zion case serves as a powerful reminder that meaningful justice still has the potential to exist, which is definitely something worth talking about.

(Photo Credits: Google)