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Phelps Staffers Pool Resources to Send a Dying Man Home to His Family in Guatemala

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July 22, 2023

By Jeff Wilson–

      It was a poignant scene at Phelps Memorial Hospital on Thursday, July 20 as staff members from multiple departments gathered for a farewell luncheon to send a dying patient they’d grown to love on a trip they’d funded. Herber Sazo, a sixty-five-year-old construction worker from Ossining suffering from late-stage cancer, was getting his final wish: to fly back to his native Guatemala and live out his final weeks in the company of his mother, three children and five grandchildren. This opportunity was made possible through the efforts of the Phelps staff, which pitched in to raise the money for travel expenses (and further nursing care in Guatemala) in just three weeks.

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     “When my doctor told me I was terminal, I knew I needed to be with my family,” Sazo, who’d immigrated to the U.S. alone in 1990, explained in Spanish through an interpreter in a TV interview just prior to the sendoff. Describing his separation from his children for 33 years, he lamented that “I don’t even know my kids. I can only get so much over the phone.”

    Fortunately that was about to change. Van Nghiem, a Physician’s Assistant in Hematology/Oncology who worked alongside Dr. Keyur Thakar treating Sazo for prostate cancer since 2018, described the chain of events that led to the fundraising effort. The cancer had stabilized, Nghiem stated, until March 2023 when it spread rapidly to the lymph nodes, bones and peritoneum (a membrane lining the abdominal cavity).

     “We had been urging Herber to go back home to Guatemala since April but he kept on saying ‘I will, I will.’  I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to physically go if he kept on waiting. So after much probing, I straight-out asked if it was because of money issues and he finally admitted yes.”

    Nghiem continued. “He told me he was still trying to make $80 a day driving for a construction company whenever his boss needed him – two to three times a week – to earn some money while waiting to find a plane ticket cheaper than $400. He said he didn’t want to go back to his family ‘empty handed’ after being in the States for so long.” (even though he’d been sending money throughout the years)

      This gut-wrenching story from a dying man was enough for Nghiem, who decided to start a collection. She contacted colleagues and went so far as to solicit her own family members (“Even my 94-year-old grandmother stepped up,” she noted). Annmarie Mulhern-Flannery, Director of Patient Care Services, procured a $2500 contribution from the hospital to add to the $1400 collected from the staff. She also reached out to Gaby Naranjo, Senior Manager of Phelps’ Caregiver Center (as well as Sazo’s translator at the event), Naranjo secured a grant from the New York Times’Neediest Cases Fund and Westchester Jewish Community Services and used it to purchase Sazo’s plane ticket. (He would leave the next day.) Finally, Mulhern-Flannery arranged the farewell lunch.

     Sazo expressed gratitude to everyone present. “I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. You’re really special to me in this hospital.” he gushed. “Everyone has treated me so well. This place has become my home. May God protect you all.” The staff clearly felt equally rewarded – and no one more so than Phelps’ Executive Director Eileen Egan, who justified the hospital’s magnanimous contribution in comments she shared privately.

     “We’re in the business of providing clinical care and support,” declared Egan, “but sometimes it’s beyond that. Like, what else can we do…to improve the quality of [a patient’s] life for whatever time they have left? And if that means spending time with their family, we’ll make it happen. It’s only money,” she concluded.

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