In 1991 my then wife and I bought a building on West 11th Street because we wanted to stay in the West Village and there were no three-bedroom apartments available in those days. We lived on Bank Street in a two-bedroom, but our two kids had outstripped the space. The tenement building we bought ($100,000 down) was populated by a number of older artistic Villagers—a cabaret singer, an opera singer, a fine artist, a writer and a former member of the NYC Ballet, Edwina Fontaine. They were all 25 years or more my senior, and I was too busy raising kids, cleaning up playgrounds, and getting involved in politics to get to hear their life stories in great detail.
Over the next 23 years, death and illness came to visit, and the last of those artist-tenants was Edwina. As Edwina passed her 85th birthday, it was clear that she was not her past robust self. She was still teaching Pilates, but seemed increasingly confused and forgetful about things that had just occurred. Then one night she fell and dislocated her hip getting out of a cab. When she returned from Roosevelt Hospital, she could barely walk. I had her sign a health care proxy and power of attorney, and set about setting up her healthcare. I got her on Medicaid, got Medicare straightened out, and got two homecare agencies to send someone so she had help eight hours a day. And then I set out to get her into an assisted living setting, an apartment-like setting where residents could come and go, but which had social services and medical assistance. I got her into the Lott Residence, on 107th Street and Central Park West, but they don’t allow cats, and Edwina couldn’t live without her 17 pound orange coon. So next I tried Village Care, at 46th Street, and they took cats. With a little assist from persons with potential oomph, I got Edwina in.
In the course of getting Edwina in, I had to supply information about her life. She told me that she had changed her name while in the NYC Ballet and that it was originally Edwina Seaver. So I Googled her, and voilà—scores of astounding photos of this gorgeous 20-year-old dancer published by Time Life and others. And as I helped her pack I found dozens more, along with theater programs. She hadn’t been a great star, but she was at the center of the ballet world in 1947, a historic survivor of a cultural renaissance in New York, a student of the great George Balanchine, and a long time teacher of little girls.
But she was at Village Care only three weeks, in a beautiful, sunny studio apartment, when she fell, first breaking her leg, and then breaking her ankle in a second fall. She had her ankle pinned, set, and cast at Roosevelt Hospital, and she was sent to the DeWitt Nursing Home, on 79th Street and Second Avenue, for what was supposed to be a 3-5 week rehab.
That was in June. In late June she got C-Dif, an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection known to spread in nursing homes. She was put in “isolation” for six weeks. It sounded like solitary confinement, but my own wife was entering the hospital for heart surgery and my daughters were 10 and under, and I had to stay away. As Edwina’s healthcare proxy, I got calls as the need arose for changes in antibiotics and other meds, and treatment for bedsores. Finally I asked if her cast had come off and found that it had not. Had she had physical therapy? They said, “not in isolation.” I screamed and the cast came off, and they took Edwina to physical therapy once the C-Dif passed.
I began to call about the physical therapy. There was no progress. I spoke to a Dr. Oren, who said, “Her dementia is too advanced. We can’t get her to walk. It will never happen.” I asked Dr. Oren how someone who taught Pilates 8 months earlier and who had come for a 3-week rehab was being condemnedby him to stay in a nursing home bed.. I got no answer. So I went for a visit and found an alert, talkative woman who re- membered everything. But they had lost her glasses and she hadn’t read in two months. No TV in her room. And she asked if I could get some yogurt, because the home wouldn’t give it to her.
Later that week, a devastating article by Nina Bernstein hit the New York Times front page about the death of a husband and wife at DeWitt, with stories of beatings and hunger and rampant infection. I called the reporter and told her about Edwina. She went to visit and they spoke for two hours about the NYC Ballet and Balanchine in the 1940s. And she printed out the series of Time Life photos and gave them to Edwina.
I came by two days later with glasses and yogurt and found a spaced-out person who could only be lifted out of bed with a hoist. I took her to the physical therapy floor and worked with the staff to get her out of her wheelchair. She was terrified to stand, afraid of the pain.
On Friday, October 10, my own 92-year-old mom was rushed to the hospital by ambulance in tremendous pain. It turned out to be her gall bladder, and after a quick operation she was home by Tuesday the 14th. No sooner had I dropped her off at home than I got a call from DeWitt. Edwina had been rushed to Lenox Hill with breathing difficulties. I called Lenox Hill, where a super-nice staff told me that Edwina had been dumped and they had no paperwork about her at all. They said she had aspirated her own vomit, had pneumonia, and wasn’t breathing on her own.
On Sunday, the 19th, I visited her. She was sitting up, breathing on her own, but had difficulty speaking and using her swollen hands. The nurse told me that Edwina couldn’t swallow but seemed to be optimistic that she would have her feeding tube removed and would soon begin physical therapy. I told Edwina that as soon as she started walking she would get to see her cat. Her eyes welled up with tears.
I began to make plans for her transfer to a real rehab. But on Thursday, the 23rd, a doctor called: Edwina was still being fed through a tube. The doctors had concluded that her dementia was preventing her from swallowing and that she was not going to survive. I was asked whether I wanted her to have a “feeding bag” installed since it might prolong her life, or just have the feeding tube removed, and nursing care provided at a hospice to give her food on request, even if it was just for taste. I said, “You know, I am just her landlord. We’re not related.” But Edwina had no family, and the doctor explained that I had a responsibility, as her healthcare proxy, to make a decision about the manner in which Edwina would die.
On Sunday the 26th the doctor called and asked me to authorize a DNR—Do Not Resuscitate order. That means that the next time Edwina stops breathing, they will not try to bring her back. I visited twice this weekend to discuss the question with her. I found an uncommunicative person whose eyes were open but who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. She has a raging infection, which antibiotics can’t address. The decisions are now clearly mine to make. This was a proud, tall woman, with perfect posture and grace that continued into her eighties. To the extent that her brain keeps working, being inside, confined to a bed with a tube up her nose, a catheter, and a diaper, unable to walk, would not be “living” for Edwina.
I am going to visit her again this week and talk to her the best I can. For this woman who was just my tenant and neighbor, whose life I really came to understand only after it began to slip away from her, my job as her former landlord is now to help her make her last decision – and to say goodbye.