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How Princess Diana’s 1989 New York trip really went: insiders

How Princess Diana's 1989 New York trip really went: insiders

Martha Grate will never forget her patients on the pediatric AIDS unit at Harlem Hospital, but one in particular still stands out.

Seven years old and a noted troublemaker, he immediately caught Princess Diana’s eye when the royal entered the ward on Feb. 3, 1989.

Diana made a beeline for the boy, asking, “Are you heavy?” before picking him up to cuddle him. The nurses braced themselves.

“He was a very precocious child,” Grate, the unit’s former nursing director, told The Post. “He was really kind of challenging and when Princess Diana picked him up, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope you don’t act out!’ We were all holding our breath, but he put his head on her shoulder. He hung on to her.”

Princess Diana cuddling a young AIDS patient
When Princess Diana cuddled a young AIDS patient, “people were so afraid to go to the children’s room,” recalled Martha Grate.
Stefano Giovannini

Diana, 27, was on her first solo tour of New York City, attending ­galas as well visiting with the underprivileged. As the new season of “The Crown” on Netflix tells it, the trip was an escape from her marriage to Prince Charles — and the infidelities being committed by both of them.

But the only thing she was focused on that day was meeting the children. Sadly, said Grate, now 82 and a minister in East Stroudsburg, Pa.: “Most of the kids that were there at that time, they’re no longer with us. By the time they got on that floor, the prognosis was so bad for them.”

As people who were at the hospital that day reveal for the first time, the visit was far more meaningful than “The Crown” can ever convey.

Martha Grate
Martha Grate, 82
Stefano Giovannini

“These children were so very, very ill, and, at the time, not much was known about how to assist them. It was just really heartbreaking. There was so much misinformation about AIDS that people believed: You couldn’t touch a doorknob or sit on a toilet or you would get it,” said Gwen Elliot-McIntosh, who was an administrator at Harlem Hospital and ran a program for women, infants and children. “People thought you had to shun people who had AIDS. It was a very bad time.”

Grate agreed: “People were so afraid to go into the children’s room. We had to encourage the housekeepers to go in there.”

Diana, however, “picked up a baby and looked at the baby like there was no one else in the room . . . She talked to [the children] and hugged them. She gave them love,” said McIntosh, now 72.

The royal had started her fight against AIDS stigma in 1987 when she declined to wear gloves while shaking the hands of ill patients at Middlesex Hospital in London.

“Basically, it was as if she was saying, ‘If I can love these little children . . . it’s OK — you can, too,” recalled McIntosh, who retired in 2002.During the trip, Diana was joined by her chief of staff Patrick Jephson, as well as a press secretary and a ­lady-in-waiting.

They checked into the Hôtel Plaza Athénée on the Upper East Side, where the duplex penthouse became her suite of choice when she was in town.

Jephson recalled in his book “Shadows of a Princess” how Diana’s team was worried about her meeting the hospital’s pediatrics director, Dr. Margaret Heagerty — “an avowed and outspoken critic of British policy in Ulster . . . Headlines swam before my eyes: ‘Princess snubbed by Republican Granny’ or ‘Republican Doc wrecks tour.’ ”

But all went fine, with Diana quizzing the doctor on the issues of drugs and AIDS. As Jephson writes, the doctor replied: “[Drug users] are irresponsible . . . but we have seen women on drugs with AIDS sit by their dying children and mourn . . . They love their children as you love your little princes.”

Although Diana never returned before her 1997 death in a Paris car accident, her visit still looms large. “I met Barbara Bush, Maria Cuomo,” said Grate. “Diana is the only one who exuded so much compassion.”

Lulu King, now 89, was Harlem Hospital’s recreation director. “I looked into [Diana’s] eyes and she became a glass figurine. She was so still and so beautiful. I told my sister and my father, ‘I don’t think she’s going to live long,’ ” she told The Post. “I don’t know why, I just had that feeling.”

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