By Harriet P. Gross
Virtually all of us have gone off to some other city to joyously “reune” (as in “reunion”) with family and friends for a wedding or bar mitzvah, generally staying in some large, centrally located hotel.
Few of us have experienced, at just such a time, what Berenice and Herb Kleiman went through recently. And that’s a very good thing.
I met Mrs. Kleiman a couple of years ago through a cousin of mine, who thought I should take a look at her friend Berenice’s then-new book, “One Stroke, Two Survivors.” It detailed life after Herb suffered a massive stroke and his wife decided to bring him home rather than consign him to a nursing facility. The Cleveland Clinic, Herb’s care center, was its publisher, and has since issued Berenice’s second book, “Lessons Learned: Stroke Recovery from a Caregiver’s Perspective.”
What’s in both volumes is well worth learning, but the new lesson that Berenice wants to teach hasn’t been printed yet. She hopes it soon will be, since she’s submitted this tale for possible publication as a Newsweek magazine “My Turn” essay.
On the last weekend of September, the Kleimans were in suburban New York City for the bat mitzvah of a great-niece, staying — along with many relatives and friends — in a major chain hotel.
“When we reserved, I requested a handicap-accessible room,” Berenice reports. “At check-in, the desk clerk assigned us to the fifth floor. I questioned how they might deal with us in an emergency; since his massive stroke on July 14, 2001, my husband Herb has been paralyzed on his right side and is confined to a wheelchair. ‘Not to worry,’ said the desk manager. ‘We’ll know where you are.’”
Fire alarms sounded at 11:20 p.m. that Friday, followed by instructions to evacuate. “The loudspeaker blared continuous warnings as we waited to be rescued,” continues Berenice. She made three calls to the front desk, always getting the same response: “We know where you are. Security will be up to help you.”
“Isolated, with continuing sirens and warnings, we watched from our window as guests poured from the hotel’s 439 rooms,” according to Berenice. “We saw the fire trucks pull up, saw the battalion chief assess the situation, observed some people point up to us.” When she called the desk for the fourth time, she got a recorded message: Even the staff had evacuated.
Imagine the Kleimans’ plight! “We were probably the only people left in the building, trapped without assistance should smoke and flames reach our room.” They didn’t panic; rather, “The emotion we both experienced was overwhelming vulnerability: In this emergency rush to vacate hundreds of guests and staff, we were expendable. Through 25 minutes of intense isolation, my husband resigned himself to dying, but I decided that if it became necessary, I would break the window, get the fire company to spread a canopy, and somehow toss Herb over and out.”
When the phone finally rang, the desk clerk reported a false alarm. She and others downstairs had known it much earlier, but failed to inform the Kleimans. Her apology was perfunctory. Later, Berenice learned that with no functioning elevators, her sister-in-law and another elderly woman, both bent almost double from severe rheumatoid arthritis, had gone down five flights of stairs without any assistance.
Berenice has some practical ideas for hotels to implement in emergency situations, but the management of the hotel where she and her husband stayed, and top officials of the chain, have as yet been unresponsive. “They say they have policy and protocol on the books,” she says. “But unfortunately, staff isn’t trained to follow them.
“Our experience raises a red flag. I want to get the word out to make families with elderly grandparents and disabled members aware of the hit-or-miss protection provided in high-rise hotels. There is no standardization. We must insist that they do better.”
The next “unlikely event” will undoubtedly occur some day, Berenice says, so she’s now asking all hotel managements, “Why house the wheelchair-bound on upper floors with no means of escape? Why not retrofit a designated elevator to enable the aged, infirm, disabled, to find their way out without waiting for rescue? And how about communicating critical information to your guests?”
Herb has been sick since the Kleimans’ recent experience; both he and Bernice expect they’ll remain traumatized for a long time to come. But the caregiver is now on a crusade, to make sure no future family simcha ever turns into a life-or-death situation.
By Harriet P. Gross