Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Life is Still Good

A year and a half has gone by since I started my work as a hospice chaplain with only one post/story in that time. Apparently silence is deafening. My initial intent to share a glimpse of my interactions with the dying, those who care for them and families by means of an anecdote or reflection was outshouted by the common but high demands of the "orientation phase" when one begins a significant transition.

I am satisfied and proud that after a year and a half of challenging growth and learning I feel even more confident in this chaplain vocation. What began as a genuine attraction to engage one-on-one spiritual counseling in a hospital or hospice has matured into personal and effective conversations to engage the most important matters of one's mind, body and soul.

Being 25 years of age and unmarried, it is a dramatically humbling experience to sit down with an 80 year old, married for 60 years and preparing for a life without the daily physical presence of the love of their life. But God is good and somehow always finds some avenue of spiritual companionship and presence.

Six months ago I was hired from part time full time. Nothing like health insurance to free me of the habit of checking 10 times before I crossed the street. But these last 6 months have extended the gift of chaplaincy to include serving over 45 patients and families plus bereavement visits with 10 spouses of patients who have passed. I am privileged to work with and have grown in friendship with my team of nurses, social workers, physicians, and other care providers. I always look forward to our our weekly interdisciplinary meetings where all of team sits down and goes over in detail each patient & family, updating their plan of care based on visits and respected feedback of everyone.

I have gained much. Over a dozen times families have invited me to preside over the memorial service for their loved one. A standout experience was this past fall in the peak of autumn's colors. This family has a cabin on a island in the middle of a river. We had the service outside with the family's collection of photos and religious symbols decorating their self-made altar. The trout were spawning and every 15 minutes you would hear one splash by. After the service I joined the potluck and soaked in the imagery of the grandchildren rolling up their pant legs and wading in the shallow river with laughter. Circle of life they say. And enjoying the current.

Being there in someone's last moments has been sacred. And I can proudly say that in a hospice care environment, almost without exception, every passing is peaceful. It can be a draining profession and I have watched co-workers of mine take time off or leave. I don't know if the Lord will have me do hospice work forever but I know I want to continue chaplaincy in some capacity in the future.

I am grateful to share this update with you and pray that after all your life's "orientations," challenging transitions, you receive the satisfying confidence of your own vocation. Until next time, every good blessing to you and yours.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chaplain Adam

We carefully approach Dorothy peacefully asleep in her wheelchair. Her deafness makes her invulnerable to the background beat of an old western movie blaring on the lobby TV screen, big band jazz tunes pouring out from the nearest bedroom radio, and silverware clinking from the trays of those finishing a late lunch. While I am taking in the scene, the nurse whom I am shadowing gently grasps Dorothy's shoulder. While this calm, fragile figure awakes from her place of rest, the nurse turns and lifts a small dry erase board off of the dresser. Carefully inking an inscription, she warns me that never has she written this much for Dorothy to read. We both hope she has enough energy today to understand us. When the nurse holds up our rectangular source of conversation I follow Dorothy's eyes slowly bounce from word to word. I realize that I have been holding my breath, watching for any slight evidence of a facial cue. She makes it to the last word. Facially unmoved, she cranes her neck upward towards me. Her eyes confirm that we have officially been introduced. She smiles. I exhale. To my surprise she touches my hand. Finally, the nurse can proceed with her examination. And whole time I just sat next to Dorothy looking at her life story through her photos on the wall. I would point at one or another and she would smile and squeeze my hand. Our wordless communication turned out to be a glorious conversation.

Thus concluded my first visit with a hospice patient as Chaplain Adam. I have recently begun my new job for a hospice health care company. We provide palliative or comforting care for those with a terminal diagnosis of less than 6 months to live. Our area includes about 125 patients and 45 different nursing homes or other assisted living facilities in the greater metro Milwaukee area. The job description of a hospice chaplain is more or less to coordinate spiritual care for a patient and their family. This often includes responding to requests of specific sacraments, contacting local clergy of the patient's preferred religious denomination, assisting or presiding in memorial services, acting as counselor for lively family dynamics, and more popularly, spending one on one time discussing life's final transition with the patient and their family.

It is hard to express how these visits carry so much meaning, but I look forward to sharing with you a few stories about the precious patients and supportive staff I work with. Any and all insights about death and dying from your own experience are welcome. I would really benefit from your wisdom. I hope you have a wonderful week!

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Day in the Life

"Get out! Or else I'm calling the police!"

Some days are better than others working for the Visiting Nurse Association. We get used to odd requests or upset patients but this day was something else.

Betty had built up quite an infamous reputation in the last week. In a matter of days she requested five visits from various service technicians regarding issues with her wheelchair. Frustration builds when she has a reoccurring problem with different parts of the chair that could not be resolved on one or two trips. Customer Service now recognizes her voice by the second syllable. And not to mention she told Brad she would call the police if he did not leave immediately.

So you can imagine how I felt when I found Betty's paperwork next to my name tag. I remember whispering to myself, "This will be good experience for the chaplain job you want." I recently received a job offer to work as a part-time chaplain for a small hospice agency in Milwaukee. I chalked this challenge up to some circumstances I might find with hospice care. I also honestly wondered in what manner I would become the next service technician victim. In front of her house I crossed myself to build up the courage to leave the security of my van.

One hour and forty minutes later I returned to the van.

I wish, at times like these, I was given the gift of quick wit or bright insight or uplifting humor. I figured that's what people appreciated most in problematic times. Yet it seems more often than not it is the response I downplay the most that somehow makes a difference. All I'm able to do in the face of violent storms is to nod slowly and to listen hard.

And how often do we hear this, but Betty needed to tell her story. She has so much pent up anger against her daughters for being absent, her caregivers for not giving her excellent service, her husband for leaving this world without her, and her God for allowing this all to happen. Somehow telling her story is therapeutic. I could tell by the tears she cried, the smile that surfaced near the end, and the hug she gave me when we said goodbye. No matter how badly I want to, I cannot give peace. I can only invite it to emerge.

Betty still calls the office every so often. And when I go out to see her I know that it really is not about the complaint concerning the wheelchair I need to focus on, it is allowing and accepting her to be herself. I wish could pick up her spirits with a good joke, or show off some quick wit, or provide deep breakthrough insight. But I am there oversimplified or not, to let her tell her own story.

Friday, June 4, 2010

These Boots Were Made for Blogging

The phone rings.


"Hi, it's Veronica from Our Lady of Guadalupe." (that's the parish I was youth minister at)

"Oh hey, what's up?"

"It's been a year and a half but your boots finally came in."

"Um, what?"

"Your boots......from Mexico." (I never ordered any boots when I was in Mexico)

"Ohhhh, okay." (having no idea what's going on I pretend to know what's going on)

So Veronica and I set up a time to come over to her house dinner. Forgetting for a moment, I looked lost when they reminded me of the boots. Out they came in their leathery glory. Regretfully, I thought for a fleeting second they might not fit. With every eye in the room on me I silently placed each boot on. To my surprise they were cushy and comfortable...and fit perfectly. The family cheered.

It had been a year and a half since I visited their grandmother in Leon, Mexico, the leather and shoe capital of Mexico. So during my visit I thought since I needed dress shoes, that I might find a great souvenir. I'll repeat that. I was looking for brown dress shoes. But here's where things get a little fuzzy. I don't remember saying a word or talking about cowboy boots. I don't know how they got my shoe size unless it was while I was looking for dress shoes. However I did not find literally any shoe my size. Maybe that's why the boots order took a year and a half. I ended up settling on a pair of sandals, of which I was quite content. Or so I thought.

Hesitant at first to accept the boots, now they've really grown on me. I wore them the rest of the afternoon with the family. And now every time I go to mass it will be in style like many of the others in the Guadalupe congregation sporting their own boots. Outside of that I am still unsure of when to wear them...unless of course there is a western themed party. Huh, I may have to throw one of those.

I am open to ideas, though :)

And to assure the doubters like my brother I do know it is not chic to wear the boots with shorts. I think I deserve a little more style credibility than that.

But that my friends is the story of my boots. They were made for blogging. Don't you think so?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

No One Saw It Coming

Like too many frustrating times before, no one saw it coming. She wasn't just bubbly, she was as warm and genuine as your grandmother. In fact she recently had become a grandmother by one of her three sons. Her name was Deb and she left invaluable impression on my mother before she left. Her exit was unexpected because no one believed she was capable of making such a decision.

Just a couple of weeks ago, overheard in the everyday coworker chatter my mother found out that Deb took her own life. Later, on the phone and choking back tears, my mother told me each memory of her brief friendship with hallowed disbelief. Both of them were proud their sons went to Marquette High School. Both were proud grandmothers, armed with photos at the ready when called upon or not.

What my mom repeated again and again was her exceptional personality that valued every fortunate person in the same room as her. It was the way she remembered the small details about you.

For my mom and many of us, the questions remain:

How can someone who went out of their way to make sure you knew someone cared, not care for their own self?

How can a mother and grandmother make such a decision to leave her family behind in this traumatic way?

What an awful conversation to discuss. Why even broach the subject? I believe Deb's story needs to be heard so that others do not have to suffer alone. I have to believe that God does not linger in times like these. Instead there the Spirit is, laboring to transform complete devastation into some good, the sole hope being this tragedy can prevent further tragedies.

Knowingly or unknowingly my mother and her coworkers did just when shortly after hearing the news, they made a pact that no matter how hopeless or trapped either one of them felt, they would confide in one another rather than be consumed with overwhelming guilt or shame at such irrational thoughts.

And if anything needs more awareness it is that mental illness misconstrues reality and rational thought right upside down. One can actually tragically believe they are more of a burden on their family by existing than not. When and if the illness subsides, one can be overcome by the weight of guilt for even thinking such thoughts and continue to suffer alone.

There should be no stigma, no shame, no battle to fight in utter loneliness.

Fighting off the nagging feeling of powerlessness, there remains another question. What can we do to ensure that someone like Deb does not have to struggle needlessly alone? I was moved by the active choice of my mother and coworkers to make a pact with one another. This awareness related to mental illness and the lifesaving resources can never be downplayed. On a larger scale, the most vulnerable populations seem to be soldiers returning from active duty and college students. Personally, I know on college campuses nationwide Active Minds is a proven student-led organization that is dedicated to destigmatizing of mental illness as well as creating open dialogue about mental health and providing ample resources to those in need.

Whatever the tragedy we may find ourselves overwhelmed by may we be open to the grace of the Spirit that draws straight with crooked lines.....sometimes very crooked lines. May we have the courage and strength to take action to erase the great divide of suffering alone versus the sharing a load with another.

Thanks for permitting me to broach such a terrible topic. May our bond be closer because of such tragedy and look out for those in our midst the way Deb would.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the Spring of Life

A quick update for you all. Life is going well. I spend my days setting up hospital beds in the home for hospice patients or delivering phototherapy units to first-time parents with jaundiced newborns. I get to visit with the spectrum of life. My work and daily life is a gift. I am enjoying the retreat in daily life where I pray on my own and then meet with a wonderful spiritual director. I am learning to invite Christ to every corner of my life and here again and again how much I am loved. It is a gift. Here are some other random notes:

*Down the line I am looking into maybe getting a Masters in Divinity so I can be a Chaplain in a hospital emphasized on Mental Health.
*Sooner down the line I am applying for a job as a Medical Spanish Interpreter. Prayers please!
*I need to fix the fuel pump on my new truck before it leaves me stranded somewhere
*I recently scored a 197 Mini-bowling
*I am moving into a house with two other great guys and medical students June 1st.
*I love getting lost in many different conversations in Spanish with patients or co-workers.
*I am becoming addicted to Beatles Rock Band on Wii.
*I've decided I am too emotional over Brewer losses.
*I can't wait to go up north sometime soon.
*After a 8 month hiatus, I am taking guitar lessons again
*Here is a picture of me at the Renaissance Fair caught as a pig thief.

I hope this finds you well. Every good blessing to you and yours! Feel free to say hello.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Loving Nieces to Pieces

Happy Easter everyone! I wanted to spread some of my own spring cheer by sharing some photo love from two little nieces who are quite photogenic. We've been able to spend a lot more quality time together it is hard to have a bad day when these gals are their glorious selves.

Here is Matt playing with Coryn:
And Josephine with her princess veil (otherwise known as a sofa arm cover(:
As you can see, all is well here. Hope all is well with you!