Niagara Gazette

May 15, 2013

DELUCA: New Hospice unit named for special guy

Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — I heard that Joe Ruffolo was just 16, working his first job in the hospital kitchen, when he met the man that he honored the other day.

That intrigued me. I imagined someone walking up to Ruffolo in the medical center hallway back then and saying “Kid, someday you’re going to be running this place ...”

That in itself might have been quite a revelation to young Joe, who went on to lead some pretty important hospitals in Buffalo before he returned about 10 years ago to take the reigns at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.  

But, to carry this imaginative exercise a little further, that person might have added “ ... and you see that guy over there — the one pushing the cart full of canned goods?  Well one day you’re going to name an entire wing of this place in his honor.”

That’s exactly what happened. 

Just the other day Ruffolo, CEO of Memorial, named the new hospice wing at Schoelkopf Health Center in honor of David Winker, an employee who worked at the hospital for 47 years until his death a couple of weeks ago.

Winker was special. He was the type of human around whom others revealed their character by the way they responded to him. To put it delicately, if it’s possible to do such a thing, he was intellectually challenged, but not handicapped. He had trouble reading and writing, but his did his job quite capably.

David biked to work every single day from his home in a trailer park near the expressway.

He would arrive three hours early so that he wouldn’t be late and then sit in the lobby until the cafeteria opened when he’d move near the kitchen until it was time to start work, shelving and storing all the food that came into the hospital.

To hear people tell it, Dave was pretty well liked by everybody. Stocky and thickly built, with muscular legs from riding his bike each day, he was dependable and caring. Kind of a funny guy, some said.

Winker, as his friends called him, loved to fish. His best friend Rick Dorato, a chef at the hospital, would drive him to a variety of favorite fishing spots, like the Wilson pier, where the two would try to catch hold of some walleye or bass, only to release them and try again.

“He would just talk, and I would listen,” Rick said. “I’d say, Dave, we can’t catch fish if you keep talking.”

The chef looked after his friend for 30 some years, and many of his family gatherings included Winker. When Dave’s oldest son was battling cancer, Winker brought five carefully carved swans to be raffled off at a fundraiser held for the family. “He was like an uncle to my kids,” Dorato told me. 

As he talked, I imagined how that must have impacted the four Dorato children, who watched their father and mother care for a man who was not like everybody else and yet quite capable of giving and receiving love. 

The parent’s thoughtfulness did not go unnoticed. When David Winker learned he was going to die, he said to his friend Rick, who was at his bedside,  “Thank you for taking such good care of me.”

For such a simple guy, Winker touched many, and dozens came to the dedication ceremony last week, when it was announced that the new hospice wing at Schoelkopf, would bear his name.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve written before that I am a Hospice volunteer and shoot legacy videos for patients who want to document their stories. But no one needs me to cheerlead over the announcement that Niagara Hospice and Niagara Falls Memorial will spend around $200,000 in upgrades for 14 new hospice rooms. That’s very good news for city residents who won’t have to travel all the way to the Hospice House in Lockport to see their friends and relatives under hospice care.  

David’s sister, Kathy DelPrince, was at the event with several family members, and said they were delighted that their brother would be remembered in such a way, especially since she, his two brothers and their parents had all worked at Memorial at one time or another. “Some of the best days of his life were at that hospital,” she told me.

Ruffolo announced that the new wing would be named “David’s Path,” because of Winker’s love of bike riding. The hospital chief told me he imagined that in David’s final journey, he got up out of his hospice bed, grabbed his bike and rode up to the gates of Heaven. 

I trust that Winker grabbed his bait, pole and tackle too, as I’m guessing there’s really good fishing up there.