They’re with you on journey

06/17/2010 12:00 AM |

A grieving Jack Rothman of East Quogue, whose wife, Katharine, died in Peconic Bay Medical Center’s palliative care unit in May 2009, returns to play the oboe in the lobby every Wednesday as a thank-you to nurse practitioner Denise D’Ambrosia, who has helped him through his loss.

After living for 57 years with his wife, Katharine, Jack Rothman, then 79, found himself brokenhearted as he stood by her bedside last year after she’d had a massive stoke, knowing that their time together would now be measured in days or hours.

Ms. Rothman had suffered the stroke at home in East Quogue on May 1, 2009, and was rushed to Peconic Bay Medical Center. She never regained consciousness and died a few days later at the age of 88.

Mr. Rothman wasn’t alone during his vigil at his wife’s bedside. Besides his son, George, and daughter-in-law, Lisa, palliative care nurse practitioner Denise D’Ambrosia was with him and has remained a presence in his life through ongoing grief counseling sessions.

“Denise has been emotionally so invaluable to me,” Mr. Rothman said during an interview at the hospital Friday morning. Mr. Rothman was among the early beneficiaries of PBMC’s palliative care program, which was started last year with a $1 million gift from Emilie and Michael Corey of Riverhead.

What prompted that gift was Ms. Corey’s hospitalization at Peconic Bay two years ago for gallbladder surgery. While hers was a routine case that went smoothly, she noticed there were many seriously ill patients around her and thought they could be better served in a palliative care unit.

“We wanted to do something and I thought about these people,” Ms. Corey said. “It’s a very worthwhile project.”

The Coreys live in New York City but summer in Riverhead, after 35 years in Westhampton Beach. They chose Riverhead because it’s “more peaceful,” Ms. Corey said.

Mr. Corey, a banker who retired a few years ago, is an avid golfer originally from Buffalo; Ms. Corey, also retired, was a geriatric social worker.

The hospital expected to provide care for about 65 patients in its palliative care program the first year but ended up serving 340. As a result, the hospital now plans to expand the unit from a few rooms to a larger addition to the hospital and name it the Pegasus House Palliative Care Program, complete with an outdoor serenity garden, according to Ms. D’Ambrosia.

The addition is expected to take about six months to build, but ground will not be broken until hospital officials determine the budget for the project and decide whether it can be built as part of the next capital campaign or they need to seek benefactors specifically dedicated to funding the expanded palliative care unit.

The new facility will be able to accommodate up to eight patients at a time, serving those with chronic illnesses as well as those with terminal diagnoses. A team including physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, social workers, a chaplain, dieticians and pharmacists is coordinated by Dr. Louis Avvento, a Riverhead oncologist. The program serves patients in need of pain management and help with anxiety and emotional distress. But its services extend beyond treatment of patients.

“Often, we’re called not just for the patient but for the family,” Ms. D’Ambrosia said. She describes palliative care as the “marriage of ethics and medicine” and said she feels blessed to be able to have such a job.

“The Rothmans’ story is the epitome of the grace of this program,” she said. She described her patients and their families are “gentle people going through hell.”

“When my wife was dying, Denise was at my side all the time,” Mr. Rothman said.

Ms. D’Ambrosia held Mr. Rothman’s hand as he shared with her many stories about his wife, their marriage and their son, George, a teacher at Brooklyn College and a musical conductor. She came to know George Rothman and his wife well and has been a guest at concerts he has conducted.

The elder Mr. Rothman is an oboeist who played with the CBS orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. On Wednesdays, he plays in the lobby at PBMC, his way of giving back to the organization that has helped him cope with the pain of his loss.

His wife was a coloratura soprano, he said, and was performing at Radio City Music Hall when they met. He remembers looking up from the orchestra pit to the stage the first day he spotted her, almost six decades ago.

“We had eye contact,” he said, and he followed up with a date, during which they walked around Central Park. “I don’t know if I was cheap,” he joked. He also remembers the day his wife went into labor. The doctor told him there were problems and that he could likely save Ms. Rothman but doubted he could save the baby. George was delivered by Caesarian section.

Following her retirement, Ms. Rothman, who used her maiden name, Lovell, opened Lovell Interior Decorators on the East End and had a second successful career.

While Mr. Rothman describes himself as “not a tough guy,” he tells several stories about playing the heavy to collect decorating fees owed to his wife.

While Ms. D’Ambrosia described Mr. Rothman as still deeply in grief, he is receiving help in dealing with his loss through the ongoing counseling the hospital offers.

“When you have such exquisite love, you have such an exquisite loss,” Ms. D’Ambrosia said.

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