It began as the odd case of an elderly man found wandering by the side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in June, carrying plenty of cash, a bus ticket, a baseball cap and papers attesting to his name. He seemed well kept, even healthy — apart from the fact that he could not say where, or who, he was.
Sent to Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn Heights, the man, Celso Heredia, 81, stayed there for several weeks while the police tried to divine what had happened to him. But when that hospital became his temporary refuge, Mr. Heredia was unwittingly swept up in a different drama: the long-running fight over whether the struggling operation will stay open.
On Thursday, the story lines merged with a twist: The police said Mr. Heredia had disappeared from the hospital the day before, the circumstances unclear amid the jockeying over the hospital’s impending shutdown.
Mr. Heredia was reported missing just after 4 p.m. on Wednesday. He was wearing a blue-and-white-striped shirt, bluejeans and black sneakers, and was in “good physical condition, but may require further medical assistance,” according to a police bulletin.
After he was found in June, Mr. Heredia ended up as one of the last remaining patients in a hospital embroiled in a battle between its owner, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which is trying to close it, and patients and workers struggling to keep it open.
Detectives said last month that Mr. Heredia wanted to be on his way. “He’s happy,” Sgt. Richard Ericson said. “He was ready to walk out the door. But where do we go from here?”
Whatever his wishes, hospital staff and administrators had already been at odds over what to do with him. Doctors and nurses who treated Mr. Heredia had argued against discharging him, saying it was unsafe to release a confused elderly man who had no place to go and spoke little English. But a person familiar with the situation said that SUNY Downstate officials wanted to remove him last week as part of the push to discharge or transfer the hospital’s remaining patients. Administrators bought a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Florida in Mr. Heredia’s name, to depart the morning of July 19, according to the person, who is affiliated with the hospital through a nearby clinic and spoke anonymously because of patient privacy laws.
“They were trying to get rid of this man,” said the person, who had copies of Mr. Heredia’s papers showing that he was discharged at the unusual time of 12:45 a.m. on the day his bus was to leave.
Mr. Heredia never got on the bus, not understanding what he was supposed to do, according to the person, who spoke to Mr. Heredia, his nurses and a detective investigating the case. Administrators also bought him a plane ticket, nurses told the person, but Mr. Heredia stayed in the hospital, until his disappearance.