Calvary Hospital marks century of compassionate care to terminally ill
MARY ANN POUST
The patients at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx are all in the advanced stages of cancer,
and most will succumb to their illness in a fairly short time.
But to Calvary's dedicated doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators, the people
they care for are not dying patients, but patients in the final stages of living.
"Our focus is not on death, but on life," says the medical director, Dr. Michael
Following a 100-year tradition of compassionate care for its very vulnerable patients,
Calvary has upheld a philosophy which has at its core a belief that the sick and the
suffering should not feel, or be, abandoned, that they should be bathed in "an ocean
of love," and that human life is sacred.
With an approach that is constantly being refined, yet faithful to its underlying mission,
the staff provides a holistic program known as palliative care which addresses the
patient's physical, mental, emotional and spiritual suffering and tends to the needs of
their families as well.
Dr. James E. Cimino, founder of the medical program at the hospital and director of its
research and educational Palliative Care Institute, said that the qualities applied in
palliative care--including kindness, compassion, listening and keeping
promises--constitute "the very humanity of medicine."
The visiting medical students he supervises at Calvary are taught "not so much about
end of life care, but about treating people as human beings, with dignity," Dr.
He added, "That's important in all parts of medicine."
Calvary, a modern 200-bed facility in the Morris Park section, has been carrying out its
mission since 1899.
Founded by Annie Blount Storrs and the Women of Calvary, a group of Catholic widows who
cared for terminally ill women in their own homes, the hospital is sponsored by the
It is the only acute care hospital for terminally ill adults with cancer in the United
States, and its program has won acclaim throughout its history.
Frank A. Calamari, the CEO since 1986, sees Calvary's program as the "gold
standard" in palliative care against which others should be measured.
"We've been doing what we do for 100 years, well before anyone else thought it
important," he said.
Established as the House of Calvary in two brownstones on Perry Street in Manhattan's
Greenwich Village, Calvary took women only and had room for 24 patients. It was
incorporated as a "special hospital" in 1900, and in 1910 the Dominican Sisters
of Blauvelt assigned four sisters to work there at the invitation of Archbishop Michael A.
In 1913, the extension of Seventh Avenue South in the Village forced the facility to find
new quarters, and the following year it moved to rented space in downtown Manhattan while
construction began on a new hospital at Featherbed Lane and Macombs Road in the Highbridge
section of the Bronx.
Patients moved into the new building in 1915, and in 1924 and 1932 wings were added. In
1947, it began taking male patients. The Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor took over the
hospital administration in 1958, after the withdrawal of the Dominican Sisters of
The building was entirely rebuilt in the early 1960s, and a cancer-care technician program
was developed. The technicians, an important part of the patient-care team at Calvary, are
para-professionals who deliver hands-on care under supervision of the nursing staff.
"They allow patients to be who they were before they were sick, because all of the
things they used to be able to do before are now done for them--so they're not
incontinent, they don't smell, their hair is done, their nails are done," Dr. Brescia
"It's a way of preserving their dignity."
In 1964, Drs. Cimino and Brescia received international recognition as part of a team who
developed the shunt for kidney dialysis patients, and in 1968 Dr. Cimino gave up his
private practice and joined Calvary as medical director.
A social work program was started in 1967, and the name was officially changed in 1969 to
By 1970 Dr. Brescia also had terminated his private practice, and along with three other
physicians joined Dr. Cimino in developing the medical program in use at Calvary today.
Again outgrowing its quarters, Calvary moved in 1979 to its newly constructed building
with 200 beds at Eastchester Road and Waters Place.
The Palliative Care Institute was established the following year, and a certified home
health agency was started in 1986.
In 1989 an important addition, the Florence and Camillo D'Urso Patient Activity Center,
provided needed space for special events, including Masses for large numbers of people,
holiday parties and community meetings.
Now, Calvary is expanding beyond its Bronx headquarters with the planned opening of its
first satellite facility in another hospital. An agreement was reached with Lutheran
Medical Center in Brooklyn for Calvary to operate 25 beds there.
"Calvary is not going to be franchised," Calamari explained. "This will be
a Calvary facility, staffed and run by Calvary employees."
If it's successful, he added, there are plans to expand into northern and southern
Manhattan, northern Westchester and central Long Island, in part to allow easier access to
families and other visitors in the metropolitan area.
"We realized that if we want to serve these people, we have to reach out," he
A continuing challenge, however, is the struggle with HMOs and insurance companies who
balk at paying for Calvary's relatively expensive service.
"Many of them see our patients as being within days of death, and the attitude is,
'Why bother to provide the Calvary program of care since they will be dead anyway?' "
Calamari explained, adding that he is hoping for legislative relief from Albany.
When it comes to patient care at Calvary, few details are overlooked. Breakfast, for
instance, is the most important meal for Calvary patients because it strengthens them for
That's why each patient floor has a kitchen, where breakfasts are cooked to order and
where the smell of the coffee brewing and food cooking stimulates the appetites of those
who might otherwise turn down the meal.
With spiritual issues important at the end of life, there are chaplains and counselors
available around the clock. And although 50 percent of the patients are Catholics and 35
percent other Christian denominations, all religious traditions are accommodated.
Mary T. O'Neill, director of pastoral services, says the hospital will remove the crucifix
from the wall of a room if a Jewish patient is uncomfortable with it. She tells of a
Buddhist patient who took much comfort last year from a shrine erected on her windowsill
by staff members.
"This was something very meaningful for that patient, and the whole staff worked
closely with her on it," she said.
The nature of Calvary's patient population often raises the question of how the staff
copes. That's difficult to answer, Dr. Brescia said, but he said the patients "give
us back far more than we can give them."
To illustrate, he told of a 38-year-old woman, a former drug addict and victim of physical
abuse, who was suffering great emotional pain from advanced lung cancer.
Feeling that he had somehow not been able to meet all of her needs in her time as his
patient, he decided that he could at least sit with her and be there for her as she died.
"She had, in a sense, a life of abandonment...and I was pretty filled with myself,
thinking that this was an opportunity for me to practice my Christian faith, to sit there
quietly, to give of myself to this patient, all of that," he said.
But as he sat at her bedside while night fell, she spoke a few soft words: "Dr.
Michael," she said, "tonight I will speak your name to God."
Dr. Brescia still gets choked up thinking about that moment. "That's what I mean,
that we get back far more than we give," he said. "No one in this world could
have given me a gift like this woman gave to me.
"And that was just my story," he said. "There are many others, that's why
all of us here are ecstatic about what we do. We're filled with this mission."