Chris Smith: Being at Ground Zero changed and sickened Patch Guglielmino, but didn’t stop her
Patch Guglielmino wasn’t the sort to dwell on it. But the flesh-and-blood angel of mercy from Healdsburg was certain she and many others gave their lives in 2001 while working in uniform at what she called “The Pile,” the incomprehensible wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York.
One of Sonoma County’s most loyal and ardent volunteers, Patch felt early on in her stint as a veteran American Red Cross caseworker near the collapsed towers that the toxic dust was getting to her.
“I was becoming concerned because my lungs hurt and I had developed a nasty cough,” she wrote in the journal that became a book, “A Flag at Half-Mast: A Personal Account of the Attack on America.”
Another day she wrote, “I wondered what I carried out of the Red Zone because my clothing was contaminated and at night when I washed my undergarments they left black water in the sink.”
Despite her fears, Patch, who first signed on as a Red Cross volunteer decades ago amid disastrous flooding along the Russian River, stayed on to help New Yorkers who struggled through the nightmare of 9/11. She was there for 71 days.
Patch had wrestled with several illnesses, refusing to let them keep her from volunteering at local hospitals, police and fire departments and at the bedsides of hospice patients, when she died Oct. 2 from pancreatic cancer. She was 78.
WHEN PATCH SPOKE of the carcinogens to which she and so many firefighters, police officers and others were exposed at the ruins of the twin towers, she wasn’t seeking sympathy. She yearned to see greater health safeguards at future disasters, and she wanted the public to better appreciate all that was sacrificed and suffered by 9/11 rescuers, relief workers and members of cleanup crews.
A recent national news story reported that someone dies from a 9/11-related illness every 2.7 days, and that so many of the stricken need medical assistance “that the $7.3 billion dedicated to sufferers could run out before everyone has been helped.”
Patch described to me upon returning from New York City late in 2001 the “tremendous dignity” she watched disaster workers show upon finding and removing human remains. Despite the wholesale horror and the toxic environment, she said, “They just kept at it.”
SHE KEPT AT IT, too.
Though Patch often didn’t feel well the past 17 years and she dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder, she carried on as a key volunteer in the emergency department at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
“She had over 8,600 hours here,” said Rod Sverko, who presides over the volunteer auxiliary at Memorial. “She was a person who really did put people in need over her own needs.”
Patch, a veteran of about two dozen disaster relief missions across the U.S. and in Guam, spent hours visiting with patients of local hospice programs. She was a chaplain, too, at Healdsburg District Hospital.
“There was a lot of grief that she wholeheartedly embraced as just a part of life,” said Tony Fisher, who’s part of the management team at the Healdsburg Senior Living retirement community.
Fisher observed for years how freely Patch gave of herself to people who were hurting or dying, and how loving and open she was to them.
“She was one of the most committed service people I’ve ever met,” he said.
A MOTHER OF FOUR and grandmother of five, Patch had lived since 1971 in Dry Creek Valley. Her passions, apart from helping fellow human beings, included writing, traveling and creating pen-and-ink art.
She’d been married for 56 years to her husband, best friend, international travel buddy and fellow volunteer, Louis Guglielmino, when he died in 2015.
Patch’s extraordinary life will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. John’s Catholic Church in Healdsburg.
Friend and admirer Fisher, of Healdsburg Senior Living, sat with Patch as she neared death and he was astounded by how calm and grateful and accepting she was.
“She didn’t want any tears and grieving,” he said. “She was so fulfilled in her life.”
Then Fisher added, “She helped so many people find peace at the end of their lives. Then she got to have it for herself.”
You can contact columnist Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.