A Warrior for Dignity

By Kathryn Jean Lopez Published on May 16, 2023

Dr. Michael Brescia promised Angela, a woman who had been living under FDR Drive in Manhattan, that he would visit her three times a day in the hospital. Brescia, who died late last month, was the executive medical director and co-founder of Calvary Hospital, a trailblazer in palliative care. He would tell anyone who would listen about the beauty of human life, and the duties to each other that beauty brings.

A Transformation for Angela 

Calvary had gotten a call about Angela from another hospital in the city that didn’t want to take her because of how bad off she was. “She had no family, she wasn’t speaking. She was filthy,” Brescia recounted years later. He was leaving for Washington, D.C., for a meeting as Angela was coming in through the hospital lobby — “She had a big tumor coming out of her back. She had chopped red hair, no teeth, little dentures here that were stuck, couldn’t get them out.” Her medical situation was no better. She had AIDS and hepatitis. The cancer-care technicians at the hospital restored her dignity. They even did her nails. Upon his return from the capital, Brescia was amazed by Angela’s transformation.

Six months later, he had more depressing D.C. meetings. As best I can remember, they were partially about the push for physician-assisted suicide. When he got back to New York, he considered waiting until the morning to see Angela. He thought better of it. And, as he discovered when he visited, she was dying. He started talking to her — not knowing if she understood, because she had never said anything to him. “Angela, she was lying on her right side, and I took her hand, put it on my cheek,” Brescia said.

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Ninety minutes later, he recalled (I’m quoting from an unedited transcript from an interview he did with the Sisters of Life in 2019, but I personally heard the story many times), Angela said his name with great love. “Dr. Michael. Dr. Michael.”

“I couldn’t believe my ears,” he said.

Angela then said to him in the excitement: “Tonight, in a few hours, I’ll speak your name to God.” Dr. Brescia wanted to know so much more. Who was Angela? What led her to her current state? And was she speaking to God? But there would be no more words. Angela said goodbye and closed her eyes.

Seeking Solutions

You’ve no doubt heard about Jordan Neely, a homeless man killed on the subway, also in New York, after harassing passengers. There seem to be two predominant responses: People saying he was murdered for simply riding the subway and people defending Daniel Penny, the former Marine who restrained him by putting him in an apparently fatal chokehold. Neely’s life and death — and all the people of the city — deserve better.

Neely had schizophrenia. “Neely deserved to be helped before it was too late,” Carolyn D. Gorman from the Manhattan Institute recently wrote. “The public deserves to feel safe. These are not separate ends, and accountability is the solution for both.”

“What’s lacking is a continuum of care for seriously mentally ill individuals before, during and after crisis,” Gorman says. The city needs beds in hospitals, including “standalone psychiatric hospitals.” She continues: “For those like Neely who can’t stay stable nor avoid violence without intensive care and oversight, longer-term inpatient care is likely the most appropriate and humane setting.”

Angela could have died on the streets alone. She could have easily been killed by one wrong move or one violent assailant. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been mentally ill, too. I know parents who are beside themselves with agonizing fear of finding out their adult child with schizophrenia died on the street because he was off his meds and not in control of his thoughts or actions.

Brescia was 90, but I was still stunned by his death, even though I hadn’t heard from him recently and suspected the end might be near. We need people like him — we need fighters for human dignity and compassion. I’m thinking of him as a patron saint for peace among strangers in the strangest situations, so that we might be better neighbors in policy and in daily life.

 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review magazine and author of the new book A Year With the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living. She is also chair of Cardinal Dolan’s pro-life commission in New York, and is on the board of the University of Mary. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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