Holy Name to open hospice on old estate

By Howard Prosnitz, Staff Writer

Teaneck Suburbanite, November 12, 2009. p. 3

Dying from an incurable disease is a lonely and painful ordeal. As victims of intractable cancers grew sicker, they become burdensome to their families, compounding the pain of their final days with feelings of guilt.

There comes a time when the dying patient may recognize that the battle against the disease cannot be won.

But life is no over. The patient may live for weeks or months. Maximizing the quality of the time remaining is the goal of hospice care.

In the spring of 2010, Holy Name Hospital will open a free-standing hospice at the Villa Marie Claire, a 27-acre Saddle River estate. With 20 rooms for patients and 17 for their families, the hospice is believed to be the first in the country with living facilities for family members.

"Our interest is in prolonging life and preserving the quality of life but not in postponing death," said Dr. Charles Vialotti, chief of Holy Name's radiation oncology department, who will become the hospice's director.

"There is nothing more frightening than a terminal illness," Vialotti continued. "Patients receive hospice care will have a better quality of life, and probably a longer life, than those who continue fruitless treatments." He noted that New Jersey leads the nation in the number of days patients spend in Intensive Care Units. Many patients are admitted to ICUs, he said, because of the toxic effects of futile chemotherapy.

The hospice will provide a full range of palliative medicine, including analgesics, sedatives and antidepressants, as required. But there will be no chemotherapy, radiation, respirators or dialysis.

Instead, the Villa Marie Claire will focus on natural and holistic activities that bring spiritual healing to patients and families. Healing gardens will be planted and nature trails will slope to the Saddle River. The estate already has an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool. Concerts, performances and art exhibits will be presented in a large central atrium. The performances will be broadcast to patients' rooms for those too weak to attend them.

"What is unique about the villa is that we will be focusing on offering patients and families life with dignity, not death with dignity," said Vialotti. "Even though someone has a terminal illness, that person can still enjoy nature and the performing and visual arts and can still contribute to the integrity, unity and productivity of his or her family."

The focus will be on the person and not on the disease, he said. "People do not want to die alone, they don't want to suffer pain and they want their families to remain intact. We believe that we be able to give patients the affirmation that their families will survive."

Family members can come and go to the hospice as they please. They can cook for the patient so the family can eat together, as all were at home. Patients will also be free to leave for dinner in a restaurant, a weekend, or longer. Patients may also decide to leave the hospice and resume treatments. If that case, patients are welcome back, if they decide to return.

A large interfaith chapel will serve patients of various religious faiths. The hospice will also include a kosher kitchen and Sabbath elevators. No one will be turned away, said Vialotti, noting that most insurances cover hospice care and an endowment is being established for the uninsured.

The Villa was built around 1900 as the summer home for Thomas and Marie Claire Mahoney. In 1916, on her 50th birthday, Marie Claire obtained her husband's permission and turned the Villa over to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, the founding order of Holy Name Hospital. In the 1930s the Mahoney's made a substantial cash contribution, allowing the sisters to enlarge the Villa. Over the decades, the Villa has served a variety of functions including a summer camp for orphan boys, a novitiate, a Catholic elementary school, a home for unwed mothers, and a graduate school for nuns earning advanced degrees. In most recent use, it was a combination retirement home for nuns and residence for laypersons. In June 2007 the sisters turned the property over to Holy Name with the stipulation that it be converted into a hospice.

The hospital is requiring the hospice to raise $5 million prior to its opening. Half the money is for renovations to the building and half for the endowment.
HNH staff has been actively involved in fundraising for the hospice, and on Oct. 29 the hospital held a tricky tray fundraiser organized in Linda Giordano, an operating room nurse. The event took in $30,000.

I came up with the idea in April of how we could all come together and help the hospice," said Giordano, who was assisted by two other HNH nurses, Mary Canciani and Johanna Marto.

The fundraiser was also a memorial to Linda Carta, a Holy Name nurse who died of ovarian cancer in 2008. While Carta was sick, HNH staff organized a tricky tray that raised $24,000 for her husband and children.

Beginning with a zero budget, Giordano sent letters to 400 businesses in Bergen and Rockland counties asking for gifts and donations for the hospice fundraiser. She received 100 responses.

Holy Name physicians also made cash donations, which Giordano used to purchase more expensive prizes, including a laptop, iPods, HGTV televisions and a GPS device. The major prize was a weeklong time share vacation for two in St. Martin's with a $500 bonus for airfare.

"There is no wonderful way to end your life," Giordano said. "But I would rather die in a cozy room with my family around me and holistic things, like healing gardens, than on a respirator. Hospice care is about making those last weeks or days of your life more meaningful."