ROCHESTER – Erin Day made her First Holy Communion on Friday afternoon in a hospital chapel while her proud father, Tim Day, looked on, attached to a cardiac monitor that traced each of his precious heartbeats.
Before administering the sacrament of Holy Communion to Erin, 8, the Most Rev. Matthew Clark, bishop emeritus of Rochester, performed the sacrament of the anointing of the sick for her father. Next to the Day family in the front row sat registered nurse Carol Rivers, who brought an automatic external defibrillator to the chapel.
It wasn’t necessary, although Day’s damaged heart might have skipped a few beats when his oldest daughter – looking poised in her sleeveless white dress, satin trim and a sash – led the crowd in the Prayer of the Faithful in a clear, light voice.
Day, 45, a veteran Town of Tonawanda police officer, was admitted to the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Strong Memorial Hospital in early April to await a heart transplant after an autoimmune disease ravaged his heart. His doctor says that the hospital stay before an organ becomes available can be “months and months and months.”
The inspiring ceremony in the interfaith chapel, whose front wall features a mosaic of the 23rd Psalm, drew about 30 friends, relatives and staffers of the hospital, as well as several people from St. Paul Catholic Church in Kenmore, where Erin’s class of 11 will make its First Communion on May 4.
Music was provided by more than a dozen singers and musicians from the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology and the Eastman School of Music. “We got a call about a week ago about this and, of course, we wanted to help out,” said the group’s leader, David Heid.
Before the Mass, Clark also said that he was “thrilled to be part of this. These are rather unusual circumstances, and very beautiful, that the father is hospitalized.”
When Day was admitted to the hospital to await his transplant, one of his sisters, Maureen Jones, realized that her brother, the youngest of 11 in a devout Catholic family, would likely still be hospitalized on the scheduled date of Erin’s First Communion. Jones suggested that something be done to make sure he could attend.
Because he is hooked up to the machines that provide medications and monitor his heart, that meant that the ceremony had to come to him.
“My sister suggested we could have Erin’s First Communion here, or she could have her second Communion here” after receiving the sacrament for the first time with her class, said Day. “I left that up to Erin. I let her make the decision, and she said she wanted to do it here with me.”
The family approached Rebecca Cambria, who coordinates the First Communion classes. Cambria swung into action, contacting the hospital and the diocese. The poignancy of the story removed all obstacles.
“In this case, it’s especially important, because Erin’s mother is Protestant, so it’s her dad who has been taking her to church and to classes,” said Cambria, who attended the Mass with Erin’s catechism teacher, Michelle Fisher.
“You just have to adjust. People do this all the time,” said Sherry Brinser-Day, Day’s wife of 11 years who has been a pillar of strength during his health crisis, caring for the couple’s three children, who include Clare, 6, and Henry, 4. “I want to make sure that during this whole time that he doesn’t miss out, that he is going to be able to participate even if it’s in a different way, the new normal.”
Erin’s godfather, Griffin Jones, who is her father’s nephew and godson, has filled in for Tim Day in some preceremony events and gave the first reading.
Having the bishop emeritus of Rochester say the Mass was a delightful surprise for the family. Tim Day said, “We were hunting around for a priest who could perform the ceremony, and they called Sherry back one day and said they had a priest but he could only do it on Friday afternoon. Was that acceptable? Sherry said yes, and they said, well good, because they have the bishop.”
Clark was soft-spoken and encouraging, stepping down from the slightly raised altar to speak directly to Erin. Tim Day’s presence, he said, “makes us all aware in a very special way that none of us owns tomorrow.” At the end of the Mass, he said, “I am going to go home a very happy man for having experienced your company today.”
Brinser-Day has brought the children to see their father at least once a week and, he said, “Erin has snuck out three times to see me when I didn’t know she was coming, showing up after school with other visitors.” Between his friends, family and fellow police officers on the Tonawanda force, Brinser-Day says her husband “has had a visitor every day. I cannot believe the love, caring and support we have received through all of this.”
“He’s got an amazing family, and I have met all of his siblings, I think. They are terrific,” said Dr. Leway Chen, medical director of the hospital’s Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation. “He has family from all over, and someone comes in every day. I’ve met many police officers, too. He’s such a nice guy, and you see his wife and kids, and it’s hard. It’s tough to be this ill, and it’s tough to go through this process.”
Not every person who needs a transplant must stay in the hospital. Chen said, “It depends on how ill you are; if you’re not as sick, you could be home.”
Day’s hospitalization is both good and bad. It reflects his more fragile status.
Sadly, Chen said, in the past 10 or 15 years, only people who are the most ill receive transplants. Right now, more than 10,000 New York residents are waiting for organ transplants. About 750 people in the Central New York region are waiting for heart transplants, says Rob Kochik, executive director of the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery network, which handles organ donation in the Rochester and Central New York area. In Western New York, organ donations are handled through Upstate New York Transplant Services.
“The downside to being a citizen of New York State and waiting for a transplant is that we are ranked like 47th out of 50 states for registering for organ donations,” said Chen. “There are states in the Midwest where 70 percent of the population is registered to donate organs, but here, it’s a long wait.”
There are opportunities to enroll as organ donors at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, when people register to vote, or online at donorrecovery.org, which requires that forms be printed out, filled in and mailed.
Kochik says it’s best for people who wish to donate their organs after death to take the step of officially registering.
But many people just sign the back of their driver’s licenses or leave instructions in a living will or health care proxy, he said.
At the very least, people who wish to donate their organs should have a conversation with family members and express their wishes.
Although many people say they are too old or too ill to donate organs or tissue, Kochik stressed that only people with active cancer or HIV cannot donate organs.
Meanwhile, Tim Day continues to wait for the transplant that will enable him to return home and resume his life in Kenmore.
“I’d like to ask people to consider registering for organ and tissue donation,” he said. “The demand is always greater than supply. They say one healthy person who is going to pass away anyway can help 30 other people with organs and tissues. It would be a great legacy to leave.”
To register to donate organs and tissue, go to unyts.org.