Hair Salon at Calvary Hospital Fulfills Special Mission
By CLAUDIA McDONNELL
Maria R. Bastone
LOOKING GOOD—Pauline James, a patient at Calvary Hospital, smiles as Jeanell Johnson’s skilled hands work their magic in Calvary’s beauty salon. Calvary places a high value on keeping patients well-groomed as a way of affirming their dignity and making sure they know they are cared for in spirit as well as in body.

The beauty salon is small: one chair for hairdressing, one sink, one hairdryer. But it makes a big difference in the lives of the people who come to have their hair cut and styled. When they leave, they look elegantly groomed, but some of the most important changes take place on the inside.

The salon is at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, which is devoted entirely to the care of patients with terminal cancer. Having a beauty shop on-site is very much in sync with Calvary’s mission of caring for the whole person—“body, mind and spirit,” said Nancy Schoener, a director of nursing. Making patients look and feel good, she noted, is a way of preserving their dignity.

Pauline James, 47, a patient, sat in the salon chair one day last week as technician Jeanell Johnson combed her freshly washed hair and styled it with a curling iron. As the hairstyle took shape and bystanders complimented her, Ms. James looked happier, and she smiled.

She said that on her first visit to the salon, the technician on duty, Benita Rivera, asked her how she wanted her hair styled. Ms. James asked for a blow-dry. Ms. Rivera dried and styled her hair, and when she finished, Ms. James was amazed.

“It was exactly what I wanted,” she said. “It was as if she read my mind…I became emotional and I started to cry.” Ms. Rivera gently touched her shoulder, and Ms. James said there was something special about that brief touch.

“It spoke to me of the kind of care and treatment that Calvary provides to its patients,” she said. “It was a combination of the skill of coming to a beauty salon…(and) of treating the patient with care and compassion. I relaxed; I almost felt a load off my shoulder.”

The salon opened in the early 1990s, and Calvary recently renovated it thanks to a bequest from a beloved volunteer, Nicholas Giannone. A resident of Queens, he served six hours a week at Calvary from 1987 to 1999. He was a butcher by trade, but had taught himself how to cut hair. Before the salon opened, patients received grooming services in their rooms, and when Mr. Giannone learned that Calvary needed someone to give haircuts, he gladly took on the task.

After his death in 2009, Calvary officials proposed using his bequest to renovate the salon as a tribute to him. His three children readily agreed. The work was done this year, and the salon was dedicated on Nov. 15. Bright, cheerful and immaculately clean, it looks as professional as any hairdressing salon.

It has a staff of five hairstylists. All are specially trained Calvary employees called cancer care technicians; they also work closely with nurses. They hold beautician’s licenses; Calvary paid for their training. There also is a licensed manicurist. The salon serves about 15 patients a week, both women and men.

Ms. Johnson, the hairstylist who served Ms. James last week, told CNY, “I love what I do.”

“I always enjoy making people look extra beautiful…It’s very important to make them feel good, to give them their pride and dignity,” she said. “When they feel good, I feel awesome.”

Calvary has another facility, the Brooklyn Satellite at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn. The same grooming services are offered to patients there, but care is given at each patient’s bedside. Ms. Johnson goes to Brooklyn regularly to provide hairdressing services.

Beth Kougasian, director of major and planned gifts, remarked in an interview that the salon’s renovation was more than just an improvement of the facilities.

“It represents Calvary’s commitment to preserving the dignity of patients at a point in their lives when they can no longer care for themselves,” she said.

She explained that some patients are transferred to Calvary after having been in hospitals where the focus was on achieving a cure. While that is appropriate, it often entails aggressive or experimental treatment that takes a toll on patients’ bodies, she said. When treatment is discontinued and transfer to Calvary takes place, the patient may arrive “in ravaged condition,” Ms. Kougasian said, and family members are likely to be upset and overwhelmed.

The Calvary staff intervenes immediately. Mrs. Schoener explained that they do “a head-to-toe,” a full-body cleansing and grooming procedure that makes the patient look like himself or herself again. That brings peace to the patient, she said, and when the patient is at peace, the family is at peace.

She noted that at Calvary, the focus shifts “from cure to comfort,” but that doesn’t mean that less attention is paid to bodily needs.

We’re not giving up on anybody here,” Mrs. Schoener said. “When a patient comes here we’re going to take the very best care (of him or her) that we can.”

The salon is part of that commitment.

Mrs. Schoener recalled the Bible account of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them. “People criticized her, but Jesus said, ‘Don’t criticize her. She is preparing me for my burial,’ ” Mrs. Schoener said. “We’re doing God’s work with our hands.”

Pauline James, the patient who had her hair done last week, talked about how she feels after she leaves the salon and returns to her room.

“I look through the window, and there’s sunlight, but there’s a difference in the sunlight,” she said. “When I look through that window, I see outside with a different pair of eyes.”

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