It’s not often that one loses two dear friends in the span of a month. Yet that merciless contagion, Covid, recently dealt me such a blow.
Mary Jane O’Neil Marcinczyk, 82, passed away in late December. Mary Jane was the night nursing supervisor at Pittsfield General Hospital (now Berkshire Medical Center) when I was a rookie orderly back in 1972. MJ, as I always called her, was insistent that I enroll in Berkshire Community College’s nursing program, and took every opportunity to expose me to a wide range of duties, so I’d have a “leg up” when I’d begin my schooling. After two years of MJ’s mentoring, I had firsthand experience on every unit — even the nursery.
One January night, Mary Jane gave me a brief rundown of the house, and a more detailed account of a recent transfer — a 20-year-old quadriplegic whom I’ll call Tim. Following the report, MJ asked if I’d stop by and visit him during my rounds in rehab.
“You’re the same age as Tim,” she said, “and won’t it break up his loneliness for a spell.”
I balked at first. Honestly, what does one say to someone whose life has been irreversibly shattered? But MJ set me straight, telling me that nurses don’t have the luxury of sidestepping tragedy or heartbreak, but need to confront it head-on.
After my ambivalent start, Tim and I became good buddies over the ensuing weeks. Despite his seemingly limited existence, he was steadily rebuilding his broken life through a mixture of prayer, meditation, books on tape and classical music.
“Can you believe it?” he confessed to me. “I’m now listening to Mozart, but before my accident, I was strictly a rock ‘n’ roll guy.”
In March, Mary Jane led me to the main kitchen, informing me that Tim was to be transferred to Mass General the following day for more intensive rehab.
“You told me Tim was fond of tapioca pudding,” she smiled, opening the walk-in cooler, “so I’ve squirreled some away.” She handed me a large covered bowl. “Here you go, for his last night here. I hope he enjoys it.”
Tim was delighted with his unexpected midnight snack and, as I fed him the treat, we enjoyed our last back-and-forth together. MJ’s simple gesture that winter’s night would stay with me throughout my own nursing career.
“It’s the little things,” she’d always remind me. “Little things that make for a good nurse.”
Mary Jane remained BMC’s night nursing supervisor for the next 30 years, overseeing 260-plus beds, before semi-retiring in 2002.
Daniel Dillon, 79, passed away in early January. I first met this benevolent community leader when I did a 12-week stint as BMC’s “loaned executive” for the Berkshire United Way in 1993. At that time, Dan was the newly appointed president. We got along famously, owing to our shared Irish heritage.
The primary duties of a loaned executive is to give talks to local businesses in order to raise money for the annual campaign. That year, the United Way was funding 130 programs through 28 county agencies.
Midway through the campaign, our large thermometer signs — posted from Clarksburg to Sheffield — were badly in need of red-painted results. Furthermore, my “card value” was well below what was collected the year before, due, I’m certain, to my lackluster performance. It just wasn’t my nature to stand in front of a crowd and ask for money.
Dan shortly whistled me aside, and gave me a passionate pep talk that echoed Mary Jane’s of 20 years earlier.
“Kev, me laddie, you need to forget your own discomforts, and think about all the people hurting out there.”
He offered vivid examples of how our city’s poor kids benefit from the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, how local families are comforted by Hospice Care, and how folks who suffer from addiction find refuge at the Keenan House.
Dan’s inspiring heart-to-heart was all the starch I needed. No longer a lawn chair folding up before surly company bosses, I became a Shaker ladderback. At the campaign’s conclusion, we reached our minimum goal of $2.3 million, just enough to stanch the bleeding for another year. Dan, in turn, would successfully pilot the United Way for the next 11 years, including a few banner campaigns that exceeded the $3.2 million mark!
Despite the current raging pandemic, Dan insisted on playing Santa Claus during the recent holidays, as he’d done for the past 10 years. Teaming up with his longtime pal, Judy Forrest (Mrs. Claus), the pair once again brought joy to all ages throughout Berkshire County. Somewhere along their sleigh ride — or perhaps elsewhere — Dan caught the insidious virus and succumbed in a short time.
In retrospect, it was no surprise to friends that Dan put on his jolly red suit to help brighten a black December. After all, that was Dan Dillon in a nutshell: a selfless individual who always gave until he could give no more.