Ronnie Polaneczky | Like Marsalis, no one stopped us at hospital

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It's unreasonable to expect security guards to know everyone, says one hospital expert. Columnist Ronnie Polaneczky found entering Hahnemann to be "so easy, a caveman could do it."

SO THERE I was, wandering through Hahnemann University Hospital, looking for the cadaver room.

I'd already eaten lunch in the cafeteria (the chicken and rice soup was very good), where Jeffrey Marsalis allegedly dined with his ex-fiancee.

I'd used a computer in Hahnemann's medical library, where the couple also hung out.

And I'd meandered through the emergency room, searching for the medical-supply room they supposedly visited.

The closet I eventually entered had no romantic allure, unless plastic tubes rock your world.

But where, o where, was the cadaver room, where the ex says she spent a half-hour with Marsalis, undetected by hospital staff?

If Marsalis could find the place where the bodies are kept, surely I could - even though I'm not a Hahnemann employee.

After all, he didn't work here, either, and he got around fine.

Marsalis, for those not obsessed with his ongoing criminal trial, is accused of drugging and raping women he met mostly through Match.com, the Internet dating site. Marsalis posed as a doctor, an astronaut and a CIA agent.

Like it's not bad enough when guys fudge their height and weight.

Last week, his ex-fiancee testified that she and Marsalis had spent a lot of time at Hahnemann, where, he told her, he was a doctor doing a residency in emergency medicine. Others have testified that Marsalis had some kind of ID badge and frequently wore scrubs or a white doctor's coat with his name on it.

Marsalis allegedly used these props to make Hahnemann home, even though he was never employed there.

That's yet another chilling detail of this already disturbing case: that someone was able to pose as a doctor and explore, apparently unchecked, a place whose most vulnerable occupants are half-dressed, bed-ridden and defenseless.

Hahnemann, of course, is no different from any of the city's other huge medical institutions, which are busier and more public than a mall is at Christmastime.

Employees, patients, visitors, students and vendors from all walks of life, come and go 24 hours a day.

That makes hospitals a nightmare to secure, says Joe Cappiello, a vice president with the Joint Commission, the country's largest health-care accrediting body.

"They need to be a safe environment for patients and staff, but they also need to be seen as a place of healing that is open and welcoming to patients and families," he says. "It's a hard balancing act. You want to control access points to the building without hindering hospital operations or making people feel like they're in airport security."

In big facilities like Hahnemann, Cappiello says, it's unreasonable to expect that security guards would know everyone coming through the door. So if someone were wearing an ID badge and jacket, the way Marsalis allegedly did at Hahnemann, he'd likely sail through.

"It's one of those cases where, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck," he said.


 

As far as Marsalis's alleged ID badge is concerned, a hospital spokeswoman said yesterday that Drexel University, Hahnemann's corporate parent and Marsalis' 2002 alma mater, often issues badges to Drexel students that allow limited access to the hospital. The university is now re-evaluating the practice, in light of the Marsalis case.

Still, I wondered, was it a fluke that Marsalis had faked out the hospital? Or could anyone easily go where he had gone?

That's what brought me to Hahnemann on Tuesday, where I I strolled for an hour, unimpeded, through its labyrynthine halls. I won't divulge my entry strategy except to say it was so easy, a caveman could do it.

It's no big deal that I made it into the cafeteria and medical library, where no one stopped me from sending myself an e-mail from one of the computers.

But it was troubling that I was able to saunter twice through the ER, glancing in on patients in different stages of treatment, and then enter a supply closet - all in full view of staff and while my Daily News ID hung, though backward, off my shoulder bag.

I just acted like I belonged. Maybe that made me look and quack enough like a duck to pass for one. Not that my excursion was a total success. I never did find that cadaver room, though, Lord knows, I tried.

I guess I'm not as devious as Jeffrey Marsalis is. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

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