By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – “I’ve actually been known to develop a psychosomatic reaction,” said Aspasia Gounaris, the part-time social worker at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park whose sole responsibility is to serve the needs of Greek and Greek-speaking families whose children are being cared for by the medical staff there.
“Whenever a family arrives from Greece, I worry that there may not be room at the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island next door to accommodate them.”
Supported entirely by the Greek Children’s Fund, Ms. Gounares’ position makes her a guardian angel to people who arrive at the hospital but whose English-language skills and cultural differences make communicating with physicians and other medical personnel difficult.
Though her psychosomatic reaction to the possibility of having to tell someone far from their home that there is no room for them at the House has thus far been alleviated by the news that there is a room where they can stay, Aspasia knows how critical the current building expansion of the House is for future accommodations.
“Every year we see more and more patients from Greece and Greek-Americans from all areas of Long Island, from Astoria to Montauk,” she said. “Without additional rooms, it is not unimaginable that the day may come when there will be no room for these families.”
The Ronald McDonald House of Long Island, which has an established identity separate from its New York City counterpart, has undertaken a campaign to raise $5 million, which will provide the funds necessary to more than double its size. With the building project nearing completion, there is still a need for donations to help fund it.
“Under current conditions,” Aspasia said, “there are often times when people who live far from the hospital are not able to stay at the House and must be turned away. The expansion is badly needed so that the families who need housing near their hospitalized children can be accommodated.”
The House has been “a home away from home” where families can enjoy a lovely, home-like setting, the privacy of their own room, and most importantly, the understanding of others who share the same burden of having a seriously ill child.
Aspasia has found the small staff and volunteers at the House to be very accommodating and informative to their Greek visitors.
“They like the Greek people. House Manager Karen Calma and the others make them very comfortable in a relaxed setting. Those who have had to return here have good memories from their prior visit and the new ones immediately feel at ease.”
Aspasia’s role at the House, which is next door to Schneider’s Children’s Hospital where she is based, is to break the language barriers existing between staff and family.
“Whenever a Greek family is there, I visit them to see if there is anything they need. Greek people in the community also visit them. There are also many Greek families and groups including the Hellenic Women’s Club of the North Shore, St. Barbara’s Philoptochos at St. Demetrios Church in Merrick, and the Philoptochos Societies of Archangel Michael Church in Roslyn and St. Nicholas Church in Flushing, whose contributions to the Greek Children’s Fund and the House have helped sustain these important causes, causes Aspasia left her first career as a fashion designer to help, first as a volunteer and, since obtaining her Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University, as a dedicated part-time employee.
“I’ll never forget, when I volunteered at Memorial Sloan-Kettering while I was a fashion designer, seeing the mother and aunt of a young boy who was being treated there, clothed from head to toe totally in black, and when they saw me coming, there was a look of relief on their faces and I heard them say, in Greek, ‘Here she comes.’
“Knowing the language of understanding could give them so much joy inspired me to leave such a vanity-focused career to pursue one focused on giving. I was so moved by it that I even wrote about this brief experience in my essay when I applied to Columbia.”
Schneider Children’s Hospital affiliated with the Greek Children’s Fund in November, 1998, largely due to the energizing efforts of radiologist Dr. Lucille Xenophon. Dr. Xenophon had had an experience waiting for someone to come out of surgery and thought about how difficult it had to be for those who do not speak the language to wait.
Aspasia was asked to take on bilingual/bicultural responsibilities as the Greek-American Program Coordinator a couple of days a week.
“I thought I would be there only to launch the program, but it’s been more than four years and I’m still here. Today I work three to four days each week, depending on how great the need is.”
Her responsibilities begin with the initial contact with the patient overseas through a letter written in Greek that describes the hospital and her role. Once patients and their families arrive, Aspasia can be found throughout the hospital – from the recovery room to oncology to the clinics, relaying the patients’ families questions to the medical and Ronald McDonald House staffs, and returning with answers. As a result of her efforts, the patient’s care becomes total because, with the language barrier broken, “everyone knows what’s going on.”
And her work doesn’t stop when they leave.
“I tell them, ‘Whenever you have a question, don’t dismiss it as being unimportant. It’s about your child’s health, and you must ask.'”