Sisters of Life Honor Pro-Life Hero Dr. Michael Brescia

“When you ask God to come, He comes. I know He’s there. I can feel it.”

Cardinal O'Connor award recipient Dr. Michael J. Brescia
Cardinal O'Connor award recipient Dr. Michael J. Brescia (photo: Courtesy of the Sisters of Life)

Dr. Michael J. Brescia, co-founder and Executive Medical Director of Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, was honored by the Sisters of Life with their annual Cardinal O'Connor award on April 28.

The Cardinal O'Connor award is named in honor of the former Archbishop of New York, who founded the Sisters of Life in 1991. The charism of the religious order is pro-life witness.

Calvary Hospital is the nation’s only fully accredited acute care specialty hospital devoted to providing palliative care to adults with advanced cancer and other life-limiting illnesses. Since its founding, the hospital’s core values have focused on compassion, respect for the dignity of every patient and non-abandonment of patients and families. Brescia describes the hospital's motivation: “We’re different; we’re mission driven, Gospel driven. We come across a symptom that is unacceptable, and we treat the symptom until there is relief. Our doctrine is succor, compassion, love, gentleness.“

Dr. Brescia invented the Brescia-Cimino fistula over fifty years ago, an internationally renowned methodology for hemodialysis that represents a milestone in the treatment of kidney disease, still in use today.  At the time of the invention, a drug company offered him $50 for every dialysis using it worldwide, but the caveat was that Brescia couldn't let anyone know about it for a year. Brescia spoke to his father, who asked, “How many people in the world will be saved every year by your invention?” I said, “50,000 in America alone, worldwide even more.” My father said, “Well hurry up then, don’t waste a day!” Dr. Brescia continues:

The drug company had told me I had to keep it secret for one year so they could prepare to open dialysis centers around the world at the same moment. My father says, ‘No, no! If you do that, when you shave in the morning, your face will disappear in the mirror and the faces of all the children whose parents you could have saved will come and appear one after another. When you sit down at the dinner table, you will have to keep a chair empty for all the people who died that year because of your silence. Don’t think of this world – for boats, and cars, and houses, you will let 50,000 people die? No, give it away!’ I was mad at him, but I knew he was right. I left and published it immediately. Recently, they told me the value of the invention is now about $60 billion.

Brescia has yet to have a single patient among the 6,000 a year at Calvary ask for assisted suicide. “No one: no matter what’s wrong, and we’ve seen some terrible cases. Not when you reach out with arms of love. When I enter a patient’s room, I always stop on the saddle of the door, and I pray, ‘My dear Lord God, my love for You brings me here for Your greater glory.’ Then it is no longer a patient’s a room; it’s now a sanctuary. When you ask God to come, He comes. I know He’s there. I can feel it.”

When asked why some people today seek assisted suicide, he responds:

It is because of suffering, depression, loneliness, physical symptoms, and personal image distortion. Sometimes people begin to feel guilty. They think, ‘Why should other people have to take care of me? Isn’t it better if I’m dead?’ That’s the way the thinking starts. It is a hard thing when we have to depend on others to do very basic things for us. As human beings we suffer in three main ways: spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Spiritual suffering has to do with the person in the bed saying, ‘Why did you do this to me, God? I don’t want to be here.’ There is also fear: ‘Is there a God? Does He know what’s happening to me? Does He care?’ One part of mental suffering is depression. But the main way we suffer is emotionally – the sense of abandonment, the absence of love. Emotional suffering can only be treated by love.

Surrounded by dying and grief every day, Brescia has experienced it in his own life:

Grief is that last way that people suffer. I was married for 53 years. Beautiful, wonderful wife, perfect partner, six kids. We’re going out to a special dinner, her and I, and I’m going to tell her I love her. I’m waiting in the family room, ‘Come on Monica, let’s go.’ And she steps out of the bathroom and falls down on the ground. Ruptured aneurysm in the brain. The way she went down I knew. I knew. I said, ‘Monica, don’t go. Take me with you. Please, don’t leave me here. Don’t go.’ She left. She was gone in 10 seconds. Now that’s grief. Grief is brutal. Grief stays. It modifies, but it doesn’t go away. From the time it happened to now it’s different. But anytime anything happens in our family, I hear a knock at the door. It’s a man in a black suit, and he says, ‘Hello, I’m Grief. I was in the neighborhood. I saw you laughing, smiling with your children. I just want to let you know I’m around.’ We all went through a terrible time. But you have to come to terms. ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ That’s it. You either accept that or not. I know Monica is in heaven. I know that. Someday the curtain will open, and she’ll be there with some of my favorite patients, and she’ll say, ‘It’s time.’ I told Monica, ‘I’ll never forget a hair on your head.' And I haven’t.’

The transformation of the alone, the scared, the abandoned is something Brescia and his colleagues witness regularly in the dying.

One day I was leaving for Washington, and I got a call from Metropolitan Hospital. They had a woman they had found under the highway. Could they send her right to Calvary? She had no family; she wasn’t speaking. She was filthy, and her name was Angela. So I said, ‘Ok, we’ll take her.’ And as I was leaving, Angela was coming in; she had a big tumor coming out of her back. She had chopped red hair, no teeth. She had AIDS, hepatitis, and was draining all kinds of infected material. Of course our cancer care technicians were anxious to go to work on her. I was in Washington for one day, fighting for funding. When I came back I went upstairs to see her, and I couldn’t believe what they’d done. They cleaned her up, worked on her mouth, did her hair and nails. She didn’t look like she understood anything, but I said: ‘I’m going to promise you, Angela, that I will see you three times every day.’ I thought, ‘Three times a day I’m going to come in and touch you and tell God, I’m going there because of my love for You.’ Six weeks later, I’m coming back from Washington again feeling discouraged. I think, ‘Oh I won’t go see her tonight; I’ll see her tomorrow.’ Then I think, ‘No, I’d better go. I’ll feel miserable tonight if I don’t go.’ I go up to the floor, and Angela is dying. So I take off my coat, and I take her hand, put it on my cheek and I say, ‘Angela, I’m staying.’ Exactly 90 minutes later, I hear, ‘Dr. Michael. Dr. Michael.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I jump up, and I’ve got her now as tightly as I can, and I say, ‘Angela?!’ She said, ‘Dr. Michael, tonight, in a few hours, I’ll speak your name to God.’ She never spoke another word. She closed her eyes and left this earth.

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