Moments of Exquisite Compassion
Two sisters place caring
at the heart of excellence
This is the story of two sisters
who are helping to strengthen the role of compassion in the
realm of healthcare.
Ellen Cohen, J79, and Marjorie Cohen Stanzler, J73, transformed
personal tragedy into a new life’s calling: helping
healthcare providers and patients who confront loss and fear—
quite literally life and death—to share their stories,
their emotions, their psychic dilemmas.
The work is transforming lives, altering the healthcare landscape,
and showing all of us the importance of human connection in
our modern world.
Their story begins in November 1994 when Cohen’s husband,
Kenneth B. Schwartz, was diagnosed with lung cancer at age
40. During his illness, he wrote an eloquent and poignant
account of his struggle with cancer that was published in
the Boston Globe Magazine in July 1995.
Schwartz, a healthcare attorney, wrote: “I was subjected
to chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and news of all kinds,
most of it bad. It has been a harrowing experience for me
and for my family. And yet, the ordeal has been punctuated
by moments of exquisite compassion…. These acts of kindness—the
simple human touch from my caregivers—have made the
Schwartz did more than just tell his story. Only days before
he died in September 1995, he amended his will to create the
Kenneth B. Schwartz Center, dedicated to promoting compassionate
healthcare and strengthening the relationship between patients
“If I have learned anything,” Schwartz wrote,
“it is that we never know when, how, or whom a serious
illness will strike. If and when it does, each one of us wants
not simply the best possible care for our body but for our
Today, the Schwartz Center reflects equally its founder’s
vision as well as the creative and tireless commitment of
Cohen and Stanzler.
“This is Ken’s legacy,”
Cohen said. “Though it began as my own grief work, it
quickly became a passion for the need, as Ken said, to rewrite
the rules about the relationships between caregivers and patients.
Both Margie and I poured ourselves into it.”
What Cohen, the Schwartz Center board president, and Stanzler,
the center’s administrative director, have accomplished
in just a few short years is a testament to their dedication
“Ken did not leave a detailed blueprint for the center”
said Cohen, “but Margie and I worked with a smart, creative,
and committed board and other professionals on many levels
to find ways that the healthcare system, often overwhelmed
by financial issues, could rediscover and preserve a culture
of compassion and empathy.”
“Today, many thousands of caregivers—doctors,
nurses, social workers, and other clinicians—discuss
the emotional issues that arise when treating seriously ill
patients,” Stanzler said, describing the center’s
signature program—The Schwartz Center Rounds. Started
at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in
1997, the Rounds now take place at 36 hospitals in nine states
and are expanding rapidly.
A videotape produced by the center, “Voices of Caregivers,”
captures one Schwartz Center Rounds session that makes it
clear why demand for this program is growing nationwide. On
the tape, caregivers from Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts,
discuss the case of a stillborn baby they resuscitated, knowing
the child would live only a very short time.
Clearly still emotional, the caregivers sought help from their
colleagues in exploring the unresolved questions: Did the
decision cause that mother more pain or was it worth it so
that she could at least hold her child warm and alive? When
should efforts to bring life back be terminated? How do you
deal with the emotional consequences of this decision, for
the patient and for yourself?
“By letting caregivers know it is all right to have
these feelings and to talk about them, a change occurs at
the heart of their professional lives,” Stanzler said.
“They realize they are not alone in struggling with
stressful situations and feel more a part of the caregiving
The Schwartz Center Rounds are only one component of the fruit
of Stanzler’s and Cohen’s labors. Housed at MGH,
the center creates, conducts, and sponsors a wide range of
educational, training, and support programs, all funded through
And as impressive in breadth and impact as the Rounds are the
100 grants the Schwartz Center has made since 1997 to more than
77 nonprofit organizations for a wide range of initiatives.
Indicative of the range of these grant-funded projects is the
narrative oncology project at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital
in New York City. This reflective writing seminar for oncology
caregivers helps them deal with the emotional intensity of caring
for cancer patients through the poetry they write, such as this
- Clinical Pastoral Education Fellowships
that teach physicians, nurses, social workers, and other
clinicians how to meet the deepest concerns and spiritual
needs of patients and families;
- An annual award to a caregiver
who has displayed extraordinary compassion in caring for
- Speaker series and panel discussions that raise awareness
of the patient-caregiver relationship in a changing healthcare
I look at you in bed, a child,
you think you are a man.
You are fading away,
now only your eyes seem to enlarge.
You ask when you can go home,
go back to your life.
This is your life now.
Your family members stand
mute awaiting answers
that are not there.
I will stay the course with you.
“We realize we have struck a chord here that resonates
not only in the healthcare profession but also across our
technological, often depersonalized world,” Cohen said.
“People need connection. It is ironic that we say the
world is growing smaller, yet we often feel more isolated.
It is not surprising that in healthcare settings, where people
must confront the essentials of life and large, universal
questions, that the essence of human nature is exposed.”
Other grant-supported programs of the center focus on the
- Cultural competency: to help caregivers understand the
particular healthcare needs and customs of patients from
- End-of-life/bereavement: to improve end-of-life care
for patients, promote earlier referrals to hospice and palliative
care programs, and develop model bereavement programs for
clinicians and families who have lost loved ones; and
- Communication skills: to improve communication between
patients and caregivers and increase empathy.
Grants also fund education programs to ensure that the next
generation of clinicians will be trained in compassionate
care. One such program was launched in 2003 as a pilot at
Tufts University School of Medicine. Schwartz Center funds
allowed Tufts to recruit and train patients as educators for
third-year medical students. The students interact with patients
who simulate a medical condition; students then receive feedback
from the patient/educator as well as from faculty members.
“We were impressed by the tactic of training patients
as educators capable of providing immediate feedback to students
on their strengths and weaknesses in communicating,”
As a legacy to Schwartz, it is fitting that the initial energy
and support for the Schwartz Center came from his family,
friends, and colleagues as well as from nurses and doctors
at Massachusetts General Hospital who cared for him during
his illness. “Ken is really the spiritual center of
this enterprise. The outpouring of love for him is still evident,”
Cohen said. “He was just one of those people. He touched
But if Schwartz is the spirit, Cohen and Stanzler are the
heart that keeps the center’s body growing and moving
forward. And as if a hand of fate were at work, their own
life stories prepared them to fill this selfless and demanding
role. Cohen and Stanzler have been close all their lives‹a
bond forged as children, when they spent hours sharing secrets
and stories as sisters do. And they understand how fortunate
they have been to have this strong, central relationship in
their lives. From their parents came an understanding of the
importance of family.
“Our lives have always been intertwined,” Stanzler
said. Cohen and Stanzler also made educational and professional
choices as if in readiness for creating the Schwartz Center.
A child study major at Tufts, Cohen later earned a dual master
of social work/public health degree from Boston University.
She worked at child care centers before becoming a social
worker at MGH, where she provided psychological support for
inpatients. She has also worked as a social worker in the
Boston Public Schools and currently consults with elementary
school teachers learning the “Open Circle” program,
a curriculum focusing on emotional and social learning.
“My work has always been about building relationships,
no matter what age or what part of the life cycle,”
Cohen said. Stanzler, a sociology major at Tufts during the
height of the tumultuous Vietnam era, found herself drawn
to public service and the challenges facing health care providers
“I always wanted to work for change in our society and
people’s lives, and was fascinated by healthcare as
was my brother-in-law Ken,” Stanzler said. “We
are fortunate that the center’s mission resonates with
so many and receives such broad support from all parts of
the healthcare community.”
Stanzler worked for the Massachusetts attorney general on
health-related consumer issues before joining Boston mayor
Kevin White’s staff. Then for many years she worked
in the Public Affairs Department of Tufts-New England Medical
Center. “My work at the center is a wonderful opportunity
to combine my experience in healthcare with my desire to help
others,” said Stanzler of her role directing the center’s
programming and grant-making activities. “It is the
most gratifying job I can imagine.”
In his Globe Magazine article, “A Patient’s
Story,” Schwartz evoked another timeless tale: “And
when I contemplated not living to see my son grow up or not
cherishing my wife for a lifetime, I thought of King Lear,
who, at one low point, wailed:
I am bound
I desperately needed to regain hope...” he wrote. He ends
his story with the words “...and the deep caring and engagement
of my caregivers have been a tonic for my soul and have helped
to take some of the sting from my scalding tears.” But
this ending was literally a beginning of the unfolding story
of two sisters who are making hope and compassion an integral
part of healthcare.
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
If you would like more information about the Schwartz Center,
call 617-724-4746 or visit www.theschwartzcenter.org.