My Brother’s Sister of Mercy

  With the imminent closing of St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Greenwich Village, I would like to recognize this hospital’s 160 year history with a tribute to one of its outstanding nurses who made an indelible mark on my family and on the lives of many other patients in the community. {Although this essay won Honorable Mention in the New York Times Tribute to Nurses in 2006, it was never published.} 

     Is it possible to be allergic to L.A.? This was precisely my brother Cliff’s concern when he began to exhibit some strange symptoms in the fall of 1989. A fastidious dresser and big fan of complexion creams and moisturizers, his skin had developed what looked to be a case of acne. He was uncharacteristically tired all the time and had a hacking cough – all of which he attributed to the L.A. air.

     The day before he left Laurel Canyon where he had been living, Cliff had phoned his friend Ira, a physician in New York, who advised him to get on the next plane home. Ira was also one of his musician friends, a fellow pianist. Upon arriving in New York, Ira had him admitted to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Greenwich Village where he was given an available bed on the orthopedic floor. It was there that we met Nurse Eileen Dunn, the firmly ensconced night nurse who took an immediate interest in this rare patient who thrived on staying up late. In sickness as in health, Cliff habitually stayed up into the wee hours watching old movies on TV. In fact, I can still recall that tick tock musical “Million Dollar Movie” theme as one of the late night sounds of my childhood.

      Nurse Eileen, a former all-American six foot two women’s basketball player, had a commanding presence, yet her white uniform and gentle blue eyes evoked the sister of mercy that she really was. And Cliff, quite the colorful character, slightly on the flamboyant side, quickly endeared himself to his night nurse. Keyboardist and singer/songwriter with a bent towards interior design, his critical eye was all set to redecorate the hospital, starting with the color scheme: “Why do they always use green paint? Can’t they use mauve?” He continued his rant which sent Nurse Eileen into a fit of laughter: “And the tile – could it be any tackier!”

     Once it was determined what was wrong with Cliff, our worst fears turned to tears. I will never forget the night we were told he had Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, or PCP, a condition typically associated with AIDS. In those days, being told you have AIDS was in effect, a death sentence. A person with full-blown AIDS was expected to live an average of only three years. We were told that Cliff would probably rally and then be susceptible to a host of other serious ailments during the course of this disease. Whether it was his steadfast vanity (which he had a lion’s share of) or just plain denial, it almost always worked to his advantage.

     Fortunately for everyone Cliff did not appear to be deathly ill for most of those three years. He always wore the right jeans and the right leather jackets adorned with long colorful scarves tied in just the right way. Cool sunglasses too. He took great pains to have his hair styled and blown every day – sometimes twice a day. He was fortunate to have good hair and he often expressed, “Thank God Dad had a full head of hair,” ignoring the so-called fact that hair quality is inherited from the mother’s side. One day when he was feeling particularly well, he disclosed to me, “Hey, wouldn’t it be amazing if I beat this thing?” Oh, such wishful thinking. Another time when he was feeling blue over his condition, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” was on the car radio. Cliff listened attentively singing along with the chorus:                         

All my instincts, they return

and the grand façade, so soon will burn

without a noise, without my pride

I reach out from the inside

     Man, did that wrench my heart. So, in spite of the regular trips to the colorist for highlights, in spite of his favorite saying, “Darling, it’s not how you feel; it’s how you look,” he was hurting.

     During that first hospital stay, on the nights that members of our family lingered past regular visiting hours, we observed Nurse Eileen ministering to her patients with efficiency and dedication. She told us the night shift was her preference because it was only then that she could best perform her duties without the distractions that came during hospital visiting hours. To illustrate, there was a frightening night when my brother was experiencing an extremely high fever and its resulting trauma. Knowing that she was only able to deal with the medical intervention and not completely ameliorate his personal fears, she took the time to call my sister Emily, who lived near the hospital, and asked her to come over – in the middle of the night – so that Cliff could be comforted by a close family member. With this gesture, it became apparent that Eileen felt her job was more far-reaching than merely administering clinical care; it included treating the “whole patient,” rather than just a set of symptoms. My mother thanked her the next day for what she did, to which Eileen explained, “Your son is a person with feelings. It’s not just a job to be done.” St. Vincent’s was lucky to have her on staff.

      The picture Cliff painted of Eileen revealed her to be a crackerjack nurse who exhibited a much-needed sense of humor, unusual for a hospital staff member. On most nights, they entertained one another, making the hospital setting much more hospitable if that is possible. They’d watch the late news on Channel 7 usually followed by an old movie. When the U.S. Open tennis matches went on past midnight, Nurse Eileen, a major sports fan, would watch it with Cliff who couldn’t take his eyes off of Andre Agassi’s gorgeous blond mane. In turn, Nurse Eileen’s friendly and reassuring manner impressed each of my family members. We could leave each evening with the feeling that Cliff was in good hands.

     The severity of Cliff’s illness was made more poignant when each night a prayer was broadcast over the hospital intercom, blessing the sick and bidding them a restful night. It reminds me of the scene in the film The Cider House Rules when Michael Caine as Dr. Larch recited his heartfelt lights out ritual to the boys in the orphanage: “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”

     He was admitted only once to St. Vincent’s, but just before he was discharged, Cliff  told my mother, “I think it’s time for a trip to Tiffany’s.” He was giving her an assignment to buy gifts for all of the health care personnel who, in his estimation, went above and beyond the normal routine. My mother gladly complied and Nurse Eileen was surely the number one recipient of Cliff’s token of appreciation.

    Cliff was discharged but the relationship did not end there. Nurse Eileen was too important to merely forget; she had entered into our lives. When in the summer of 1991, Cliff was living in an apartment on Eighth Street and his body was beginning to succumb to the complications of AIDS, he insisted upon home care (and a good steak when he felt up to it), wanting to avoid hospitals at all costs. Rather than eat the three square, planned physician-prescribed meals that were delivered to his apartment everyday, he much preferred restaurants.

     My mom religiously showed up in the Village each evening at 5:30 and frequently trotted Cliff down to a café on Fifth Avenue just so he could enjoy a savory steak. Sometimes he was too sick to even eat it, but going through the motions was the point. My mother must’ve known her son wasn’t long for this world, so off they’d go to a nice restaurant for dinner. Emily and I would occasionally join them.

     Along with the family, Eileen was there for Cliff – after hours – for several weeks. And at the end, it was she who disconnected him from his medication pump and made the call to his physician who then contacted the funeral home, a million dollar medical move in our eyes.

     Cliff passed on and Nurse Eileen moved on, although she’s kept in touch with our family. We regard her as the ultimate health care professional and one of America’s indispensable and dedicated nurses. The sun may be permanently setting on St. Vincent’s Hospital, but the medical center should count itself fortunate to have had such a bright star in its nightly late show. As for Cliff, I’ve sensed him looking down at me when I‘m out for a run and I never fail to gaze heavenward whenever I hear Eric Clapton singing “Tears in Heaven” on my iPod.

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37 Responses to My Brother’s Sister of Mercy

  1. Carol Gilio says:

    Thank you for sharing Cliff’s story Melinda. I know all too well how valuable and consoling it is to family when a beloved brother or mother or father is cared for in the way Nurse Eileen cared for Cliff and all her patients. I will never forget walking in on my mother in the hospital and witnessing a male nurse screaming at her. My mother was delusional at the time. I went ballistic and reported him. Nursing is a vocation not a job and God bless Nurse Eileen…and God bless Cliff.

  2. Melinda Ehrlich says:

    Thanks once again, Carol. I just felt that I should publiciaze this piece because of the 1000 staff members that were fired yesterday from St. Vincent’s.

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  34. Eileen Dunn says:

    For someone who wasn’t in Room 737 into the long hours of the night, you described what went on perfectly. Many memories came flooding back to me. I even saw the green walls and could hear Cliff’s rantings about the decor, or lack of it. I can still see him arriving on the stretcher and shortly after walking down the hall with beautiful blonde locks flowing and a long white robe that certainly wasn’t issued by the hospital!!
    Cliff was to bring tears of joy and saddness to my life for years to come. I wouldn’t trade a minute of the time I spent with Cliff and the Grishmans. As a nurse at St. Vincent’s I was lucky to have had many patients who touched my life and educated me in so many different ways. My time with Cliff was life changing. We were so different but the love we had for eachother made the differences even more interesting. I often wished that he was my brother. We shared many private thoughts during those long hours when he was so sick. After he got out of the hospital I often went to see him play the piano at gigs on Long Island. A very talented man with definite ideas of how the world should be. The night he died taught me how strong I could be even though my heart was breaking. Cliff’s death enabled me to become an even better nurse. Many people have benefited from the lessons I learned from Cliff Grishman.
    Melinda, your writing has reduced me to tears once again. I can’t wait to read your book. Please make sure when Hollywood makes it into a movie that K. Bates doesn’t play Nurse Eileen!!!! Love you and I still have the box and it’s contents from Tiffany’s!!!

  35. Melinda says:

    Eileen,
    I am so grateful that you took the time to write such a beautiful comment on this piece. It’s always nice to know people are reading my blogposts. As you probably have seen in the most recent one called “The Process,” my book should be out in February. Trust me, you’ll hear about it. In the meantime, I wish you and Pat a wonderful Christmas and a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.
    Love, Mel

  36. Marie says:

    Melinda,
    Your article was very touching, and it brought back a lot of feelings when I think about the loss of my brother. Cliff sounded like an amazing person and brother. It was certainly a blessing that you all had Nurse Eileen in your lives at a time when you needed her most.
    Marie

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