A close-up view of Addeo House


Death and peace on Staten Island: Workers at first free-standing NYC hospice open up about their emotionally taxing but fulfilling calling

Palliative care workers at the Addeo Hospice Residence, which will open later this month, hope the new home will provide tranquility in a bustling city.

The staff of the new Addeo Hospice Residence took the Daily News inside their new facility and discussed what chronic exposure to death teaches them about life and why they cannot quit.

Palliative care workers at the Addeo Hospice Residence, which will open later this month, hope the new home will provide tranquility in a bustling city.

Tucked away beneath the shadowy trees of Lighthouse Hill, the Addeo Hospice Residence is New York City's first free-standing hospice home, providing a quiet oasis for the dying and those they are leaving behind.

Paula McAvoy, director of the Addeo Hospice Residence, poses outside the new home that she says “was a dream that was started well before my tenure here.”

Rosalie Mottola, 63, planned to travel the world with her husband Vincent Mottola, 66, after retiring. It was a dream they had discussed over the course of a marriage that started when the born and bred Brooklynites crossed the Verrazano Bridge to create a new life together. But liver cancer got in the way.

When Vincent's condition deteriorated rapidly last March, Mottola contacted Maureen Bunio, 52, the same Staten Island University Hospice nurse who helped bring peace to her mother Josephine Guercio, 93, in her final days two years ago.

"My mother decided that she wanted to be dressed in the clothes that she was going to be buried in. Maureen bathed her and fixed her hair and put her in her dress and gave her such a measure of peacefulness," Mottola said the day before Vincent died.

Nurse Maureen Bunio told the Daily News that hospice “teaches us more about ourselves – how to be patient, how to listen… I’ve learned to listen better than ever before in my career.”

In her husband's hospice room, Bunio was down on the ground helping the couple's grandchildren create arts and crafts like Grandpa — he was an avid oil painter. Tears welled up in Mottola's eyes as she watched.

"You can't get that anywhere else," Mottola said. "And now Vinnie is benefiting from it too ... I know that (Addeo) Hospice is opening their residence and I would have been delighted if it had been open in time for Vinnie to be one of their patients there."

It took a decade to come together, but construction on the eight-bedroom home was completed last year on the green grounds of the Eger Health Care Center, near the hospice's director Paula McAvoy's Richmondtown neighborhood.

The eight-bedroom home is nestled in a quiet area that almost makes you forget that you are in New York.

McAvoy vividly recalls the moment she decided to commit to hospice, a philosophy of care that holistically treats a terminally ill patient's physical, psychological and spiritual pain and councils family members.

As a nurse at NYU during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s, McAvoy grew more frustrated every day that she could not soothe the pain of the many dying young men she saw, so she looked into palliative medicine.

"I think probably the biggest misconception is that selecting hospice care is akin to giving up and that's really not true," said Spencer Levine, the vice president of programs for the Hospice Foundation of America.

Vincent Mottola started painted abstract images and flowers when he retired from his job of 28 years as an officer at the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility. He was a member of the South Shore Artist Association.

British physician Cicely Saunders started the modern hospice movement in the ‘60s when he founded St. Christopher's Hospice outside London. The first stateside hospice opened in New Haven, Conn. in 1974. By 2011, there were 5,300.

"Year after year, the number of people who are utilizing hospice care nationally is increasing — that's a good thing," said Levine.

In 1982, only 25,000 patients received services from hospice in the U.S. In 2011, the number of patients served rose to 1.65 million and 44.6 percent of all deaths in the U.S. occurred under the care of a hospice program, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Rosalie Mottola’s husband Vincent Mottola and mother Josephine Guercio were both Staten Island University Hospice patients. Nurse Maureen Bunio cared for both of them and formed an everlasting bond with the family.

But the constant exposure to death can take a toll.

"I've been working in hospice for 18 years and it is still emotionally draining," said Barbara Feltus, hospice chaplain and pastoral care coordinator.

"It's not physical work. It's all in your head and your heart. There is no way you can't get attached to these patients and their families."

Staten Island Ferry passengers walk off into Lower Manhattan at the Whitehall Terminal. The Staten Island natives from the hospice hope that the new building can be a point of pride for other locals.

Those who stick around and persist through the emotional challenges are returned tenfold with life lessons.

Back on Staten Island, Bunio said that despite the perpetual reminders of mortality — and often because of them — she appreciates her life outside of work more than she ever had before taking up the profession.

"Every patient is a teacher," Bunio said. "They teach you to live each day to its fullest, to not assume that you have a number of years left."

Bunio's voice was neither saccharine nor affected. She was simply stating what she considered a matter of fact for her industry.

Bunio, a Staten Island native, lives on the North Shore, within walking distance of her entire family. She has seen what the borough's medical community needs on a daily basis ever since she became a nurse in 1986, working in surgery, dialysis and labor before settling in hospice.

Staten Island University Hospital, much like the borough itself, is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors: Sloan-Kettering, New York Presbyterian, Mont Sinai— to name a few. Bunio hopes fellow Staten Islanders will take pride in the Addeo, which will also serve Brooklyn and Queens.

"People don't realize they have a gem right in their community," said McAvoy.

The Addeo's staff hopes it will offer a homelike alternative to hospitals or nursing facilities.

"There is not another career in the world where you just show up and someone is grateful that you came," Bunio said. "To allow somebody peace and physical comfort at the end of life ... there's nothing like it."

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