Nuns provide free hospice care to cancer patients

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — It is called Sacred Heart Home, and its work is just that: sacred.

For 84 years, a group of nuns has been caring for poor people dying from cancer in their gleaming home on the edge of Hunting Park. They do it free of charge.

The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne accept no payment of any kind from patients, insurance companies, or the government. Though its sisters are Roman Catholic, Sacred Heart receives no funding stream from any diocese or church.

"Isn't that a miracle?" asked Sister Mary de Paul Mullen, Sacred Heart's nursing director. "We rely totally on the providence of God to exist."

Technically, Sacred Heart is a 35-bed skilled nursing facility. Practically, patient Eileen Rugh said, it is more — a place where the cheerful nuns take care of her as tenderly as though she were family, a place far less grim than she imagined when she heard the word hospice.

"We don't talk about death here," said Rugh, who has Stage 4 lung cancer. "We just talk about today, and today's a pretty good day."

The work is inspired by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of the 19th-century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and a convert to Catholicism. After learning about a New York seamstress who died in a poorhouse for lack of cancer care, Lathrop was moved to act.

"A fire was then lighted in my heart, where it still burns," she wrote. "I set my whole being to endeavor to bring consolation to the cancerous poor."

Lathrop took a nursing course, rented a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and began doing just that in 1896. Eventually, she became a nun, took the name Mother Alphonsa, and in 1900 founded the order.

In 1930, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne came to Philadelphia and established what was at first called the Sacred Heart Free Home for Incurable Cancer in the city's Hunting Park section. By 1952, they had moved into their current home, a three-story brick structure on Hunting Park Avenue just off Broad Street.

Over the years, thousands of men and women have received end-of-life care from the sisters. Today, five nuns are registered nurses and five more work as nursing assistants; a small, paid staff of nurses, maintenance, and cleaning personnel supplements the sisters' efforts.

The sisters pray in the chapel daily; Mass is said on Sundays and holidays. Residents may attend services or watch them in their rooms, but religion is not an admissions criteria, and most patients are not Catholic.

Some residents come to Sacred Heart from homeless shelters or prisons. Some have family who visit daily, and others have no one. Some stay for a month, some stay for a year or more. They are the people who would otherwise fall through the cracks, the sisters say.

To gain admission, patients must have stopped treatment for cancer. The focus is palliative care, pain control, comfort.

Sacred Heart patients are provided with medications and daily whirlpool baths, social services, laundry, barber and beautician services. A doctor makes regular visits. There is entertainment, too, games and music for the people well enough to enjoy them.

On Tuesday, a singer crooned holiday standards to residents who gathered in a lounge to smile and sway a little.

Leo Venckus, 88, sat at a table, nursing a cup of coffee and waiting for the singing to start.

Venckus, a gregarious retired insurance salesman from North Philadelphia who has lung cancer, came to Sacred Heart a few months ago.

"This is a hell of a place," he said approvingly. "I'm very satisfied. There's entertainment, it's clean, the food is good, the staff is friendly."

Down the hall, Rugh sat in her warm, immaculate room, adorned like the rest of the home with colorful Christmas decorations.

Rugh, who has lived at Sacred Heart for eight months, relaxed on a green leather recliner topped with a fuzzy brown blanket.

She marvels daily, she said, at the sisters who provide her one-on-one care.

"They always say, 'Whatever you need,'" said Rugh, 59, who lived most recently in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland, County, but who spent most of her life in Frankford. "They keep your spirits up. It's gorgeous, and everything is in abundance."

The sisters work hard to ensure that.

"It's not home," Sister Mary de Paul said, "but we hope it's the next best thing. And for some people, it's better than home."

Sacred Heart does not smell like a hospital, and though the trappings of illness and death are always present, they do not dominate.

The home is magnificent at Christmas. But it always shines, from the polished wooden chair rails that line the hallways to the garden that somehow manages to convey peace amid physical pain and the bustle of the gritty neighborhood.

That's important to Rich Tenaglia, a maintenance man who for 28 years has tended to the garden's lovely plants, flowers, and shrubs.

"It is hard work," Tenaglia said of keeping up the large home, which takes up an entire city block. "But very fulfilling."

At Christmas, his focus shifts entirely to filling the home with elaborate decorations — trees, angels, wreaths, poinsettias, a gorgeous carved Nativity scene.

"A lot of them won't be here next Christmas," Rich said. "We want it to be special for them."

Sacred Heart has a small endowment, Sister Mary de Paul said, built up over years of donations large and small, bequests from wills and contributions made in memory of former patients. Sometimes it feels daunting making the place run, she said — payroll, and medication, and insurance, and other expenses.

Occasionally, a patient's family member tries to send a check in gratitude for the care their loved one received. But that goes against Lathrop's wishes.

"We have to send it back," Sister Mary de Paul said. "It drives people crazy."

But what the sisters describe as "the hourly mercy of the charitable public" seems to come through just when a refrigerator blows or an unforeseen expense crops up.

On Tuesday, a truck pulled up with a large donation from Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Jenkintown — boxes and boxes of soap and lotion, towels and other necessities.

"Our birthday and Christmas presents for the year!" Sister Mary de Paul exclaimed. "Oh my gosh, another big box! Thank you very much. It looks like enough towels to last the year!"

Sacred Heart staff unloaded the boxes from a van. Sister Mary de Paul stood in the rain, beaming, her gray hair peeping out of her black veil.

"There really is a lot of goodness," she said.

Elaine Linkewich came to work at Sacred Heart after she retired as a city employee. She wanted another job, she said, that would "touch my heart." She knew the place from volunteering there, painting female patients' nails and fixing their hair.

In a moment of serendipity eight years ago, she said, she drove past the home, called, and secured a job keeping records, answering phones and giving tours to prospective patients. She tells people they will be treated like royalty.

To be honest, Linkewich said, at first she was worried about the financial footing of a place that received no steady stream of income.

"But now I know the hand of the Lord is here. You feel that when you walk in," said Linkewich. "These people are our family, and it's a gift to be here."




Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer,

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