Every person deserves dignity in their last days

Hospice is not a word associated with pleasantness.

Typically, it signals that the end of life is coming for us, or a loved one — such as my dear aunt, who was admitted into hospice care about 10 days ago.

In fact, I had no experience with hospice care before my aunt moved into Brooklyn–Calvary Hospital’s 25-bed facility within NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn in Sunset Park — an institution that many locals still refer to by its former name, Lutheran Hospital.

But in the days since, I discovered that Calvary Hospital, which opened in 2001 as New York State’s first hospital within a hospital, is a crown jewel among local hospice-care providers. My family and I felt something special from the first moment we wheeled my aunt into its third-floor space, where we saw that the facility’s stated mission of providing “care, compassion, trust, love, and non-abandonment” were not just words on a brochure, but values embodied in the daily operations of its staff.

For instance, the nurse who welcomed my sick aunt — who hadn’t laughed in a very long time — did so with a joke, leading her to crack a smile for the first time in months.

Over the past four years, my aunt has spent plenty of time in various hospitals and rehab centers for treatment to her Peripheral Artery Disease, an illness caused by plaque buildup inside an artery, which blocks blood flow and reduces circulation. She already underwent two major vascular surgeries to get blood flowing to her legs, but due to her age and physical state, doctors say there is no more that can be done. Her sickness resulted in gangrene in both of her feet, just one of her many conditions caretakers must monitor daily.

As anyone who has dealt with chronic or terminal illness knows, the stress it causes to patients and their kin is emotionally draining. Each time my aunt landed at a new facility, my family felt obligated to be there around the clock to help her eat, ensure she was being cleaned, and ask questions about her medications and prognosis. But after watching the Calvary staff attentively administer to her since she arrived there, we feel far less compelled to be at her bedside at all times.

When a Calvary nurse brought my aunt her first meal — which must be served in puree form, due to her state — my family and I all raced to grab a spoon to feed her, a habit we developed during her stays at previous facilities.

But, to our shock, the nurse immediately began feeding my aunt herself — something all Calvary nurses do if patients require assistance, she later told us. The nurse also informed us that she and her colleagues are trained to sit across from patients as they feed them, so they can be at eye level, which allows for a more relaxed eating experience than if aides stand above patients, which can cause them to rush through meals.

Additionally, Calvary nurses sit with patients just to keep them company, as well as make regular check-ins, clean and comb their hair, and always make sure they are comfortable in their beds. There are also volunteers that roam the facility’s halls to support patients and their families.

Perhaps the facility felt so much like a second home for my aunt because of its garden and patio named in honor of my former neighbor, the late, great Bay Ridge Republican Rosemarie O’Keefe, a tireless community organizer and political advocate who died of cancer at Calvary back in 2009. Locals to this day remember O’Keefe for her work creating the Alliance of Bay Ridge Block Associations, and as commissioner of former Mayor Giuliani’s Community Assistance Unit, a role in which she advocated for all New Yorkers in the wake of 9-11 and other tragedies, including the tragic TWA Flight 800 and Swissair Flight 111 crashes.

Watching the Calvary staff dote on my aunt, my red blood turned a shade closer to purple as I wondered why some must wait until the end of their lives to receive this type of care. Shouldn’t all hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers — whether public or private — be required to treat their patients with such extraordinary dignity and respect?

Bob Capano is a professor of political science of more than 15 years, who has previously worked for local Democratic and Republican pols, and as the chairman of the Brooklyn Reform Party.