Sister M. Camillus O'Keefe began her Adirondack journey in the mid-'60s on a bus to Lake Placid as the first physical therapist to the then-incomplete Uihlien Mercy Center.
"I find even now that people still identify that I am originally from New York City," she said. "I love it here, but didn't know where I was going. I grew up vacationing in the Catskills. When you grow up in New York City, upstate is Westchester County. I took a bus here and with each turn it became more and more beautiful. I fell in love with the place before I even got off the bus. So here I am.
"When I came, there were lots of sisters interested in touring here to see what this new facility was going to be like. Sr. Michelle was the administrator. It was her vision on how the now AMC-Uihlein turned out. When the center opened we had a sister therapist, a sister dietitian, we had sister nurses, sister social workers and the convent was built to accommodate sister staff. We are now a semi-retired house but it still affords sisters the ability to visit with the nursing home residents without going outside."
Sr. M. Camillus O’Keefe stands in front of the stained glass windows at St. Margaret’s Convent at Uihlein Mercy Center.
(Photo — Diane Chase)
The St. Margaret Convent is located on the second floor of Uihlein Mercy Center.
Sr. Camillus shares that Uihlien Mercy stands today because of Sr. Michelle's plan and through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Uihlein and other benefactors.
"Sr. Michelle could really go out and get everyone enthused," she says. "I was here from the beginning of the process. In those days patients coming in usually stayed. Now we have a whole unit that is for rehabilitation. We had people staying 10 to 12 years. It has evolved into what it is today. People are now coming in much later and much sicker."
Sr. Camillus felt she always had a calling.
"I look back at the span of my life and I say at least I am consistent. I am not someone who seizes the idea and runs with it. It took me a while to finally say this is it. I was 35 when I joined the convent. But when I look back it was always there. And then there is a day when there is nothing but that and I wonder what I was waiting for," she laughs.
"I didn't want to be a teacher and the Sisters of Mercy did other things besides teaching, though I went through my college courses for education. One day during practice teaching I was reading a story and the next thing I know I was slated to teach 1st grade. The president of the college, who was a Sister of Mercy, asked me what I wanted to do. I said I do like working with the elderly. She said we had a nursing home being built in the Adirondacks and they needed a physical therapist.
"To this day I am glad she didn't ask if I knew what physical therapy was, because I hadn't a clue. In those days, you found every time you said yes it was the thing to do because it always turned out right. So I said yes and filled out the applications for school.
She received her training in the Saint Louis University physical therapy program, which was established in 1933 and was one of the first physical therapy programs to be accredited.
In 2006, Adirondack Medical Center purchased both the Uihlien Mercy Center in Lake Placid and Mercy Healthcare Center in Tupper Lake.
"AMC has made an incredible effort to make Uihlein and Mercy incorporated into their unit," she said, smiling. "Behind the scenes, AMC made this a smooth transition allowing the places to stay open and with little disruption to the existing patients. It was so important to have a place so families didn't have to travel all over to see their loved ones.
"This changed my life; it is a letting go. The question from the Sisters' point of view is what do we do now? We have arrangements with AMC so we can stay here, so the housing piece was set but what do we do? After 60 years of giving, we can give more. There is more here. It is why I am here," she calmly states.
"For us, one door closes and another door opens. It was seamless. Donna Beal was the Executive Director of the Mercy Uihlein Health Foundation that was created to help the Mercy Nursing Homes. She had her offices downstairs in Uihlein Mercy. It was a two person office then and it is still with the addition of Sr. Catherine Cummings as the director of Faith Community Nurse and Friendship Volunteer Programs."
"We proposed to the Foundation board that there was a need in the community. We knew that there were people out there that didn't want to go to a nursing home, that didn't meet the criteria to go into a nursing home, that stayed at home but family was away. There was a need," she says. That was the beginning of Mercy Care of the Adirondacks. It was a spirit intervention, really. I have never been part of a group discussing Mercy Care where anyone ever asked why we were doing this. They immediately accept and say 'I know so and so who needs help.' Everyone knew someone that would benefit from this type of service."
Established in 2006, Mercy Care for the Adirondacks, a non-denominational organization, provides two grassroots services: Friendship Volunteers that contribute to the vitality of the elders living at home or in independent-living communities by means of friendship, home visits and connection to society; and Volunteer Faith Community Nurse Services where licensed registered nurses promote health and spiritual well-being. The goal is to relieve the seclusion of elders living in their homes or away from family by reestablishing social structures in compassionate ways.
"That is a blessing," Sr. Camillus said. "How was the reaction to letting go? You almost let go with one hand while opening the other. We were planning Mercy Care as AMC took over Uihlein. To be in on the beginning of something and be excited about it is a gift.
"That need was there. All the experience pointed in that direction. Doors open. Doors close. There is always going to be a need and we just have to ask the question, 'What can I do to help with that need?' It seems so wonderful to us; I am sure it was the same feeling for the other Sisters of Mercy as they closed one facility and opened another. Just like when I first saw the steel structure of Uihlien Mercy Center and held the blueprints and wondered what is this going to become.
"With Mercy Care the potential and the need is far greater than I had imagined. There is reassurance to the person that is being visited and to the family member that lives at a distance, almost a respite for them. The need for this program is expanding as people stay in their homes longer. It isn't just beginning something and we are encased it. It is always another door. I just thank God. It is such a gift.
"People need to be active. People need to be involved. There are people that are living in their homes that have something to share, that can sit and talk and make a person feel important. Simple things like taking someone to the grocery store. It is one thing to get a list from someone and quite another to take them shopping and get them out, engage with them and be involved. That is one segment. There are people out there that have a lot to give. This is about connecting those people and getting people together. What I've picked up from listening to people is that it is neighbor helping neighbor."
Sr. Camillus remains active through her involvement with Mercy Care as well as being coordinator for the convent where she attends to the immediate needs of the house. She has a lot of paperwork now. She is on the Mercy Care board and two of the committee:, community relations and strategic planning.
"It is another exciting start wondering where Mercy Care is going to be. Someone always has something to offer someone else, whether it is visiting, listening or sharing stories."