[media-credit name="Abby Spilka
Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer" align="aligncenter" width="600"]
, 45, firmly believes that nobody deserves to die alone, and does everything in her
power to make sure that elderly and sick downtown residents won't have to.
By day, Spilka is the Associate Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, but in her free time, she volunteers with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, visiting patients in their Lower Manhattan homes.
is also a "Vigil Volunteer," called specifically to sit with patients who have only hours to live.
The core responsibility of both jobs is, "to bear witness to a life lived," according to Spilka
The task is a familiar one to her
, as her
day job is to help keep the memories of those tragically lost during the Holocaust alive.
In 2001, she worked for the museum in an off-site office six blocks from the World Trade Center and watched the events of 9/11 unfold from her office window.
To say the least, Spilka possesses a unique kind of firsthand knowledge of the ways in which war crimes have affected millions of people who died alone and in pain, many without being given a chance to say goodbye.
The museum's east wing was the first new project to break ground after 9/11 and the museum is a celebration of life rather than death, "a living tribute to memory.
Several walls are papered with the faces of 3,000 children deported from France to various concentration camps.
These photos, says Spilka
, are all too reminiscent of those found on the "missing" posters that appeared after 9/11.
"Every generation says, 'Never forget' and 'We have to make sure it doesn't happen again,' but then…" said Spilka
While putting together a special exhibition on World War II veterans, Spilka
met a former marine named Pearl Scher, one of the first residents to take up assisted living in Battery Park's Hallmark retirement home.
"For someone who was suffering, she
looked great," Spilka
"When I told her
said it was because she
was in hospice care."
That's when Spilka
decided to train to become a volunteer with V.N.S.N.Y
A hospice volunteer provides many different kinds of support: reading, socialization, respite or support for a caregiver or a family member, helping the patient write goodbye letters, taking trips to the grocery store, assisting with the organization of household materials, even something as simple as fluffing a pillow.
More skilled support can include programs like Bedside Yoga, Arts at the Bedside, and Life Review.
sat with Scher the night before she
died in September of 2006, it was hardest, she
said, to see the once feisty woman so vulnerable and helpless.
There are certain signs that a person is near death-according to Spilka
They tend to get restless and claim to "see angels that we can't.
That's where Vigil Volunteers come in.
When it becomes apparent that a person has less than 48 hours to live, doctors call V.N.S.N.Y.
, who send out a message to their volunteers.
"Since the patient is imminently dying, the goal is to let them know they are not alone and they are safe," Spilka
said of her
"At this point in their lives, they are touched clinically, but not necessarily in a warm and caring way.
Human connection is very important at the end of life."
often reads meditations and poems to her
patients, but sometimes she
just holds their hand and tells them that they are safe.
The trained volunteers learn that sounds like humming and singing can be quite soothing, and that it's important to eat first to ensure that a rumbling stomach isn't the only sound in the room.
"Watching a patient take their last breath is like watching a butterfly fall asleep, its wings fluttering progressively more slowly until they become motionless," said Spilka
"I'm like a spiritual guide who wishes them a safe journey."
own mother became sick and her
family decided against hospice care, Spilka
took a leave of absence from of college to be by her
The next year she returned and earned a degree in Classical Civilizations.
trains new volunteers on how to actively listen, perform "compassionate touch" techniques, and connect with their patients.
People don't get put on it soon enough to benefit from the resources," said Spilka
Outside of the museum is an installation called the "Garden of Stones," featuring 18 hollowed-out boulders that each house a growing oak sapling.
The living memorial garden is a metaphor for the ways in which the tenacity of the human spirit is able to thrive in the most inhospitable of places.
In Judaism, Spilka
explains, the number 18 has spiritual significance, loosely meaning, "to life."