Niagara Gazette

March 17, 2014

Nancy's waiting room: Hospital's ICU benefits by designer's gift

By Michele DeLuca michele.deluca@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In the final days of his dear friend’s life last year, designer Paul LaMorticella sat with her family and friends in a grim critical- care waiting room at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

His friend, Nancy Gara, a longtime hospital volunteer and advocate, was battling lung cancer in the critical-care unit and it was a testimony to her life that so many people came to give her love and support. But LaMorticella was struck by the sadness of the space in which they waited.

“The room did not provide the comfort and warmth needed for the people who find themselves in such grave situations,” he said. 

When Gara died last May at age 65, LaMorticella was among the many whose hearts were broken, but he found a way to pay tribute to her recently when he renovated the waiting room in her honor.

The globe-trotting LaMorticella, who has a design business called Dream Designs & More in Western New York and a second design business in Southern California, set about with the intent of making the room feel like an embrace for those who wait within its walls. 

The designer met Gara years ago through his sister, Lynn Safarian, owner of Evergreen Floral in Niagara Falls. Safarian and Gara were tellers at HSBC as Gara was just starting on her path to eventually becoming a vice president at First Niagara. Gara was like family to the siblings, LaMorticella said, and he decorated two of Gara’s homes. 

“She always supported my business,” he said, “and always gave me constant reassurances.”

A Niagara Falls native, LaMorticella has designed for top Buffalo restaurants, including the Buffalo Chophouse, and hotels such as the Statler. He also has designed locally for businesses such as The Seneca Niagara Hotel and Casino, Town Hall Bistro in Lewiston and Franca Romeo Accounting in Niagara Falls. Among his world travels, he’s been — just last year — to Italy, Mexico and France.

But the critical-care waiting room was personal. He funded the job himself and recreated the room completely, with the help of his associate, Nichole Burkhart of Interior Designs by Nikki. 

“I dealt with the room architecturally first,” he said, noting that he added crown molding, wood blinds and a wood floor to give the room a homey feeling.

Then, he added color to warm the room. “I dramatized it. I went as dark as I could go so that it was warmer, rather than colder.” The colors he used included grays, tans, taupes, beiges and black. 

All the furniture in the room was selected for durability, he said, including a leather couch. To make the room more inviting, he added fabric throughout, including the the over-stuffed chairs and on the back and sides of the couch for visual softness.  Then he added a small, wooden dining room set where family members could sit together and share some of the food that always seems to make its way into hospital waiting rooms.

For continued warmth, most of the finishes on the end tables and other furniture are hand-rubbed to soften the room’s edges. He added greenery and drama with two metal column bases holding bamboo and natural grasses that stand about 8 feet high. 

His sister, who also spent days in the ICU waiting room with Gara’s family, described the renovated space as looking like a room that could have easily been in Gara’s house, with its warm comfortable feeling. 

“Nancy would be so touched and honored that my brother did that for her,” she said.

The finishing touch to the room was a trio of botanical drawings that pay tribute to Gara’s love of gardening. LaMorticella purchased the three large, black and white botanical paintings and then brought them to Gara’s home one Sunday so family members and friends, including her husband Sam, her children and grandchildren, could write thoughts about her, in messages which seem to infuse the room with love.  

“Losing you happens everyday but not forever,” her husband, Sam, wrote as part of his message.  

Other written words on the drawings speak to the community’s loss of a giving spirit. “You were the voice of those who had none,” wrote hospital CEO Joe Ruffolo, referencing Gara’s volunteer work on many area boards, including the board of the hospital.

If the room makes those who wait within it feel just a bit more serene and peaceful during difficult waiting, then LaMorticella has done the job he’d hoped to do.

“That room held a big importance for me,” he said in a phone interview from his home, which overlooks the ocean near Laguna Beach. 

“It’s very personal without being in your face personal,” he added. “Nancy would have liked that … she was a very classy lady.”

 Contact Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.