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In Life As In Death

What is the measure of a job well done? What is the measure of kindness and compassion? And how are they related? The life of Robert, a 49 year old who suffered from a mental illness, illustrates that these can be measured in different ways. 

At 19, Robert was diagnosed with a mental illness. His mother, a Holocaust survivor, cared for her only child in her home until he was 47. When she was temporarily disabled by a hit-and-run driver, she realized it was time to plan for her son’s future without her. Parents of children or adults with disabilities often worry what will happen to their children after they are gone, who will take care of them. Robert’s mother contacted OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, and OHEL accepted Robert into one of its residences for adults with mental illnesses.

Robert acclimated to his new home and, as the staff at the residence in which he lived remembers, he always had a smile on his face. Although usually quiet and reserved, he willingly participated in OHEL activities. His mother recalls how, as a child, Robert loved baseball. When he became ill, he refused to attend any games even at the urging of his family. However, his mother recounts how he eagerly attended and enjoyed a Yankee game with his OHEL family. How happy she was to know that her son could once again take pleasure in an ordinary activity. 

Over the holiday of Succot, Robert became medically ill and needed to be hospitalized. Over the next six days, Robert’s condition deteriorated and he fell into a coma. Staff members, who care for the residents as they care for their own family, accompanied Robert to the hospital; they did not leave him, or his mother, alone for the duration of his stay. In fact, OHEL staff members were with him when he died. Many people are not so fortunate. They die alone, without human comfort.

In addition to embracing Robert during his time of need, the staff made sure to pay close attention to his elderly mother as well. Once Robert was under the care of competent physicians, the staff directed its attention towards Robert’s mother to help her through this difficult time; they sat with her, held her hand, comforted her, and arranged rides to and from the hospital for her. Both Robert and his mother were the recipients of deep kindness and compassion.

Unfortunately, kindness and compassion cannot save lives. Robert passed away, but his two years at OHEL were, perhaps, the happiest since he was diagnosed with mental illness. Even as his mother mourns, she expresses the positive impact of OHEL in Robert’s life and death. At every opportunity, she expresses her gratitude to OHEL for caring for her son and for helping her through this most difficult time. Like any family, Robert’s OHEL family mourns him as well. OHEL staff and residents planned, attended, and spoke at their loved one’s funeral.

For most people, a job is a definitive term for a definitive amount of time in a day. To the OHEL residence staff, this is not the case. The residents of the homes become their friends and their family. They care for the residents as they would care for their own parent, child, or sibling. They share the happy times, the humorous times, and even the sad times.

As staff members console each other and Robert’s OHEL friends for Robert’s loss, they consider what they can learn from this experience and how they can improve the care they provide to their clients. This is their responsibility; this is their life. 

We live in a world in which acts of kindness and compassion are too rarely reported in the media. Newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories of tragedy, ranging from the most recent terror in Israel to the children found stabbed in their home in Queens. It is only infrequently that a story of kindness and compassion finds its way into our lives. But what really makes an act kind and compassionate; what really makes something newsworthy? And why are stories like Robert’s story seldom newsworthy?

Aristotle says, “moral excellence comes about as a result of habit.” We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. As Robert and his mother can testify, just, temperate, and brave acts are habit to OHEL staff members and that is the measure of their success and their job well done.  

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