The Power of Hospitality: Claire’s Tea Room

by Columbia Surgery on March 7, 2013

Some people seem to have a gift for turning the most unlikely of circumstances into something beautiful. Claire Pace is one such person, having created a haven of warmth and comfort in the unlikely environs of a hospital floor where shell-shocked parents anxiously pace the halls and wait for news from their children’s heart surgeons.

Claire Pace

Claire Pace

Claire became a fixture in the halls of Columbia Presbyterian Babies’ and Children’s Hospital after her son Adrian was born with a congenital heart defect. Over the course of his life, he underwent six major surgeries (culminating in a transplant at age 40), hundreds of smaller procedures, and an endless stream of medications (see The Humanitarian Heart in the summer 2012 issue of Healthpoints for Adrian’s story). And so, during his childhood, Claire would spend weeks at a time on the children’s heart surgery floor, venturing no farther than the cafeteria or chapel.

During one of Adrian’s recoveries as a young adult in 1990, Claire was breathing more easily in the knowledge that her son was on the path toward health when a compelling idea took hold: she would use her talents as a baker and interior decorator, and her years of personal experience in the pediatric cardiology ward, to connect with other parents and families going through their children’s heart surgeries. She would pamper them with an elegant English tea, complete with fine china, silver, and home-baked delicacies, to provide an island of respite, if even for just a few minutes.

The first tea took place in nothing more than a broom closet, which was abdicated with great reluctance by the hospital. But with her tablecloths, silver, china, flowers, lace, and carts of gourmet baked goods and teas, Claire masterfully transformed that tiny room. Shock and disbelief quickly gave way to smiles of joy as doctors, nurses, and family members came to experience the warmth of her hospitality. Although they might be going through pain and trauma for the other 23 hours of the day, they could relax and find serenity in this oasis for a short while.

For the next 18 years, Claire held tea every Wednesday. She would spend two days baking, and then cart 40 bins of delectables and finery to the hospital, where she would serve what she fondly calls “psychological support in the guise of English tea.” As more people learned about her tea room, the broom closet gave way to a larger space, and other volunteers began to help with the three-hour set-up, serving during the tea, and the three-hour cleanup.

Claire and a team of volunteers, including previous visitors and some who had heart surgery as children themselves, still provide tea at the pediatric cardiology unit each month. The room’s bare walls have long ago been transformed by beautiful murals of garden scenes that she commissioned. The volunteers walk around the floors and invite whomever is there that day, and they deliver plates of desserts to nurses and staff who can’t leave their desks.

One visitor wrote, “Your tea room with all its magical splendor is an island of peace, warmth, and friendship for those who are on rough seas.” Others commonly say they forget they are in a hospital for that hour or half hour.

Claire, who had trained as a nurse but who had sidelined her career to care for her son, says, “There is an air of empathy because the volunteers have all been touched by children who have heart disease. There is never a day in the tea room that doesn’t make a difference in someone’s life. It is so much fun to bring joy into people’s lives.”

Tea Room Helpers, left to right: Sara Halman, Bea Riccardo, Jill Hollander, Cis Hollander, Carol Hordof, Mariann Florio, Patricia Grayson, Claire Pace, Jenny Pace, JoEllen Marshall, Carol Shoretz, Golda Oakley, Amber Pace. Additional volunteers not in this photo include Debra Rahn Oakes, Meredith Rahn Oakes, Shahpar Haikim, Karen Watson, Lily Shoretz, Nannette Merritt, Annie Haddad.

Tea Room Helpers, left to right: Sara Halman, Bea Riccardo, Jill Hollander, Cis Hollander, Carol Hordof, Mariann Florio, Patricia Grayson, Claire Pace, Jenny Pace, JoEllen Marshall, Carol Shoretz, Golda Oakley, Amber Pace. Additional volunteers not in this photo include Debra Rahn Oakes, Meredith Rahn Oakes, Shahpar Haikim, Karen Watson, Lily Shoretz, Nannette Merritt, Annie Haddad.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Eileen Cranmer March 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

Wonderful idea. Congrats to all of you for your loving and caring.

Vince Tedone March 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Dear Claire, What a wonderful experience it must be for you to have offered so much solace to so many people. When I retired I did not know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Then my 30 y/0 daughter Deanna an attorney and recently married was diagnosed with ALS in 2007. No hope offered life expectancy 2 to 5 years. Since then we have developed the Deanna Protocol a novel treatment for ALS that slows its progress and prolongs life. We Now have over 1000 ALS patients worldwide and counting. We have been featured on the Christian broadcasting network [ CBN ] and the response has been overwhelming. Our family not for profit foundation http://www.winningthefight.net is funding research on ALS mice to fine tune the Deanna protocol. All this has been so rewarding to me in the twilight years of my life. Not only being able to offer my daughter treatment but also knowing I will provide hope for those afflicted by the most devastating disease known to mankind

Larry Waterhouse March 20, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Claire…..just wonderful……..great and a bunch of other praises………where do I send a check……the address etc….and say hello to good old whats his name…….

Larry

jon santemma March 20, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Claire Pace is a wonderful example for all of us. Faced with the intensity of her sons condition she not only took wonderful care of him, but she turned her energy into the tea room–every week driving a station wagon filled with her own baked goods, silver, china and crystal from Suffolk County to West 169th St. Her husband, Tony supports the hospital in many other ways,including a park he had designed and built dedicated to their granddaughter. The philosophies set by Tony and Claire’s example of hard work, dedication and caring are carried on by their sons– Bradley, Adrian and Jonathan, each an ourstanding young man, and each with his own beautiful young families all being raised with Pace values. Well done Claire,Tony –and family…
you have set a high bar for all of us…

Columbia Surgery March 21, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Eileen, Vince, Larry & Jon:

Many thanks for your wonderful comments. I will be sending this on to Claire’s son Adrian. He can share these with the rest of the family.

Adrian takes after his go-getter mother and started a company that sells healthy gelato:
http://www.columbiasurgery.net/2012/05/29/heart-transplant-patient-takes-up-new-career-develops-nutrition-product-to-help-other-patients/

JEAN PAUL CHANDONNET May 23, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Growing up as we did I never knew Claire was a nurse, that she baked, or that
her son had the hurdles spoken about above. I was under 10 years old. I wish nothing but the best for Adrian. Claire looks the same for sure after all these years. I have not seen her in over I would say 25 years ! Bottom line, what you have done is tremendous, and I miss everyone back in Lloyd Harbor where we all started and where our great values were fostered. Those values prevail today. Hi Brad and everyone.

Regards, JP Chandonnet- Greenlawn, NY

Columbia Surgery May 28, 2013 at 10:25 am

Hello J.P.! It’s great to hear from you again. Thank you for your comment on the article and support!

Bruce and Jacky October 11, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Claire,you do the most wonderful things and still put up with whats his face.Hope to see you both soon,

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: