NOTHING stops visiting nurse Ewa Natkaniec from making her uptown rounds. Not the dangerous 104-degree heat last week, not the blizzard of Christmas past.
There’s an 80-year-old blind man on Wadsworth Ave. in Washington Heights with depression to look in on; a 68-year-old woman recovering from lung cancer on Sherman Ave. and an 81-year-old Dominican grandmother with asthma and diabetes who never leaves her Inwood apartment.
Making sure they are alive and well is all in a day’s work for Natkaniec, who looks after 35 northern Manhattan seniors in a 27-block radius between 190th and 217th Sts.
“I don’t know what I would do without Ewa (pronounced “Ava”),” said Rosa Espinal, 81, the Dominican grandma, whose lower legs were so discolored and swollen from poor circulation and diabetes, she spends her days in her reclining chair, feet elevated, watching TV.
“She does everything for me,” she added, speaking through the team’s Spanish interpreter, Francisca Alvarez. “She calls my doctors, helps get me my medicines. I love her.”
Natkaniec is part of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York‘s managed care program (VNSNY CHOICE) – a team of health care professionals who provide the elderly and frail with long term care in their homes rather than being institutionalized.
The program targets Medicaid-eligible seniors who have complex chronic illnesses and want to remain independent.
Part medical detective, part social worker, Natkaniec is her patients’ best advocate. She peppers her clients and their home health aides with questions about what is going on at home, and if they are taking their medications. If a building in known for drug dealing or danger, it does not deter her. She brings an escort.
Making her rounds in the suffocating heat last week, Natkan-iec was a woman on a mission.
First was the stifling sixth-floor apartment of one of her favorites, Billie Furney, 99, who refused to have an air conditioner installed in her place. With just a fan going, and the thermometer over 100 degrees, Natkaniec worried Furney’s life could be endangered, and that she might have to bring her to a cooling center.
“Are you thirsty, Miss Billie? Do you feel dizzy? Do you have any pain?” Natkaniec asked, her own blouse drenched in sweat.
The serene woman, a retired baby nurse who recalled how she used to dance the night away at the Savoy in Harlem in her day, just smiled. “I feel fine.”
After checking her blood pressure and blood sugar, Natkaniac then fired off instructions to Furney’s substitute home health aide: “Make sure she drinks water every half hour in this heat, and you give her a cool bath, and if you need me my telephone number is on the fridge.”
In addition to her American-born patients, her caseload spans four separate cultures: Polish, Russian, Hispanic and Cantonese. She speaks Polish and Russian and uses an interpreter for the others.
“The clients share a lot of their past with me, their losses, their happiness, the story of their lives in New York City,” said Natkaniec, who lives in the Bronx with her husband and 7-year-old son. “The elderly are so vulnerable. I’m happy to be there for them.”
Natkaniec said in her five years on the job she has learned to become more flexible – realizing her patients are often more comfortable with their own culture’s home remedies than they are with American medicine.
“They will put camphor in the water to make it easier to breathe, and instead of pain medicine they prefer their own rubbing oils and herbal ointments,” she said. “They don’t always take their medication, because they’re scared when they read the labels for side effects.”
Asked what she has learned from her patients, Natkaniec said: “Sometimes peace of mind and good rest and family support is more important than medicine. The herbal tea helps them sleep better. Going to church and lighting candles makes them feel better. Sometime’s a person’s will is stronger than a doctor’s eye.”
By mid-afternoon, her blue uniform soaked from sweat, Natkaniec made house calls to a homebound couple on Dongan Place. “They had air-conditioning and were comfortable and a very experienced home health aide with them, so I was relieved,” said Natkaniec.
Weighing on her mind throughout the day was Furney, whom she visited that morning and decided to check at the end of the day.
“I want to make sure someone is staying with her in the night, especially because she doesn’t have air-conditioning,” she said.
She takes Furney’s thin hands and brings her smiling face close to hers so she can hear her. “You are a beautiful person, Miss Billie,” said the nurse.
“I love you,” Furney replied, her eyes welling up with tears. “You take such good care of me.”
For more information, call VNSNYCHOICE at (855) 282-4642 or www.vnsnychoice.org
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