‘… and you cared for me’

Sept. 25, 2003
‘… and you cared for me’
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Francis House provides end of life care for the dying and their families

When one thinks of visiting a house where people go to die, it’s hard not to imagine it being dark and somber, hushed and cheerless. At Francis House, located on the north side of Syracuse, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, one finds upbeat, caring and dedicated volunteers and staff who nurture, comfort, and provide unparalleled support to the families and patients who reside there. The surroundings are bright and cheerful, immaculately clean and very much like home. The staff fills the needs of the families and residents often before they, themselves, know the need is there. Many of the volunteers are the family members of former residents who were so impressed with the experience of Francis House they wanted to continue to be a part of it. Kathy MacLachlan is a nurse practitioner at Syracuse University’s Student Health Center whose mother passed away five weeks ago. MacLachlan is a health care provider who wasn’t able to take an extended amount of time away from her job in order to care for her mother. Onondaga County Department of Social Services (DSS) helped place MacLachlan’s mother at Francis House.

“Because I didn’t have to be actively involved in her care, I could focus on being a daughter,” said MacLachlin. “My mother didn’t need me in the capacity of a nurse. She needed me as a daughter.” Carol Pietraszek , a Camillus resident, also struggled with the fact that she could not take care of her dying mother at home. “My mother’s health was deteriorating rapidly,” said Pietraszek. “I knew she wouldn’t be around long enough to fill out the paperwork to get her into a nursing home.”

After 80 days in the hospital, Pietraszek took her mother home and tried to care for her there but quickly found she couldn’t physically do it. Because she is an only child, she had no siblings to share the burden. On the recommendation of DSS, Pietraszek and her father, who was also in very poor health, took a tour of Francis House. When they walked in the building they immediately felt a sense of relief. “A tremendous burden was lifted,” said Pietraszek. “The goal of Francis House is to make people feel at home. Not only do the patients receive 24-hour care, seven days a week, but what they do for families is huge,” she said. Pietraszek said that 80 days of hospital visits took their toll on her and her father. Once they arrived at Francis House, things became much easier. “My father was eating better than he had in months due to the volunteers at Francis House providing us with nutritional meals,” said Pietraszek.

Francis House has eight private bedrooms for the residents and is in the process of building eight more. Beth Lynn Hoey, the director of development at Francis House, said the most important aspect of running the house is that it operates as a family setting. The residents who live there have a prognosis of six months or less to live and admission is based on need. Someone who is in immediate need for their services goes to the top of the list. The rooms are tastefully decorated with hand-made quilts on each bed. ”It’s very important that the house does not have an institutional feel,” said Hoey. “I was so comfortable with the care they were providing for my mother,” said MacLachlin. “But they took such good care of me, too. You don’t get that in a hospital setting.” “You’re there for a really lousy reason,” said Pietraszek. “But if you have to be anywhere, that’s a wonderful place to be. Some days I was really stressed out and anxious to get to my mom, who I thought was alone. I rushed over to be with her and when I walked in, one of the volunteers was curling her hair. I then knew I didn’t have to worry about her care.”

Both Pietraszek and MacLachlin are volunteers at Francis House. It took Pietraszek about a year to find the courage to go back there after her mother passed away. “The first or second time I went to volunteer, another volunteer asked me to relieve her from sitting vigil with a patient who was close to death. I couldn’t say ‘no.’ I was there to do some good,” said Pietraszek. “But it was at that point that I crossed over from being so sad from my own experience to wanting to be with this resident who was dying. I would not have wanted my own mother to die alone and I didn’t want this woman to die alone.”

Francis House volunteers attend 10 hours of training on everything from how to talk to dying patients and distraught family members to the importance of maintaining a clean and germ free environment. The volunteers range from teens doing community and parish work to the elderly who find so much fulfillment in being needed. Providing comfort to the residents comes in many forms –– from celebrating birthdays and holidays to fostering a connectedness among the patients. One recent patient was able to bring joy to all who met him. He was an 8-month-old who was in the final stages of his own life. The staff and volunteers would wheel the infant up and down the halls to visit with the other residents. “It gave the other residents joy to visit with him,” said Pietraszek. “Maybe for a few minutes they forgot why they were there as they played with him.” “Miracles happen in a lot of different ways at Francis House,” said Hoey. “We have had a handful of residents who have gotten better and been released. I’ve seen residents connect with family members whom they haven’t spoken to in many years. One man, who hadn’t spoken with his daughter in years, called her to say ‘I love you’ before he died. That in itself is a miracle.”

Because Francis House does not receive any county, state or federal funding, they rely on the donations of individuals, corporations, small businesses and foundations. Residents and/or family members are asked to donate only a percentage of the full cost of their care. They also rely on the generous people of the community who volunteer their time and services.

The Journey Home

Abraham House offers love and care for the terminally ill

UTICA –– Nestled in the heart of Utica is a quaint Victorian home filled with antiques, character and a staff of dedicated volunteers whose mission is to help the dying do so with dignity. Cindy Shepherd is the executive director of Abraham House –– a home donated to St. Francis de Sales Parish Center in 1995 by Doctor Abraham Shaheen. At the time the house was donated, Shepherd, who was working at AIDS Community Resources, talked with Father Fred Daley, pastor of Sr. Francis de Sales Church about the increasing need to find a place in Utica where AIDS patients could receive respite care in the final days of their lives. “There was a high rate of people with AIDS in this area at the time,” said Shepherd. “I had conversations with Father Daley every day for two years about the problem and the need was becoming greater and greater. People with AIDS were dying alone.” In order to renovate the house and prepare it to receive the dying, Father Daley solicited the help of community and parish members for donations of time, money and resources. The two-bedroom house was opened to those in need of 24-hour care in 1998. Since then Abraham House has served 51 people and their families. “We thought the house would target the AIDS population and the elderly,” said Shepherd. “But that’s not the case. The majority of patients are between 23 and 50 years old.” One such patient was the brother-in-law of Jim Cittadino, who is a volunteer and president of the board at Abraham House. “Vern had been at home for a long time during his illness,” said Cittadino. “And the longer he was home, the grumpier he became.” Vern’s daughter had used up all of her vacation days and then, through the generosity of her employer, was able to work at home several days a week while caring for her father. But after several months, her employer needed her back at work. “Once Vern was placed at Abraham House, he became much more pleasant,” said Cittadino. “He loved it here.”

Liz Williams is a volunteer and past board member. Williams was invited to the first meeting at Abraham House by a friend who had watched Williams struggle with caring for her dying father. “I got very depressed when my father was in a nursing home,” said Williams. “The care there just wasn’t what I wanted for him. People here have a much more peaceful passing than they would in a hospital or nursing home.” The volunteers at Abraham House treat each other and the residents like family. “When I’m not here volunteering,” said Williams, “I can call and ask how the residents are doing.” Volunteers even come in and check on the patients on their days off. “You get attached,” said Delores Ziobro, a retired nurse and a volunteer and board member. “We go out of our way to show the families we are here for them. If they come to us with any concerns, we point them in the right direction to get resolutions for those concerns,” she said.

Ziobro enjoys her work at Abraham House and said it’s a very special way for her to give back to the community. “Guests allow us to be part of a very special time in their lives,” she said. “They divulge a lot of personal information in order to become at peace with where they are in their life. And we have the time to spend with them that wouldn’t be possible if they were in a hospital or nursing home.” “Hospitals are so restrictive in letting family members stay with the dying,” said Williams. At Abraham House, there is a guest bedroom for just that purpose –– so that family members can be close to their loved ones 24 hours a day. Cittadino said that his experience at Abraham House was a wonderful one for him and his wife and niece. “Vern couldn’t have gotten better care anywhere,” he said. Cattadino’s wife Doris is also a volunteer. “It’s an honor to be president of the board and a part of the Abraham House. My wife and I owe it all to Vern,” said Cittadino. “We do everything we can to fulfill the needs and wishes of our residents,” said Ziobro. “An elderly man who was a resident, although he loved it here, wanted to die at home,” she explained. “We advocated for him to get his wish. It was difficult and we angered a lot of people in the process, but we succeeded. And the joy on his face and the hug and kiss he gave me before he left was worth it.”

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