By David Lewellen
Hundreds of chaplains gathered in one place produce a unique energy, as they learn, pray, reflect, and share experiences with colleagues who know exactly what they’re talking about. The NACC conference, Board Chair Bonnie Burnett told the gathering, is “not just seeing old friends, but seeing all of you and knowing that you are friends I haven’t met yet.”
At the opening worship service, Sr. Agnes Reinhart said in her homily, “We are called to be passionate in our relationships – with coworkers, staff, patients, and visitors.” She reminded her audience to work on the value of respect for coworkers, and to be present for every employee. “We can relate to all persons with respect and compassion,” she said, and if staffers are in harmony with one another, patients will sense it.
A workshop on newborn loss described the case of a girl born at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, NY. Mary Alice Westerlund, BCC, said that the family and staff knew in advance that the story was not going to end happily, and the administration and ethics committee were fully briefed.
“That baby affected an entire floor of our hospital,” said Rev. Krzysztof Boretto. When the case was presented at grand rounds, “75 people in the room were all in tears.”
Going to the NACC conference has been part of the routine for 25 years for Myra Wentworth of Middletown, OH, and JoAnn Thiele of Dayton, OH. The two met in CPE in 1985 and have been friends ever since.
Thiele retired in 2006, but keeps coming to conference. “I have a need to return and see what’s happening,” she said. “It reassures me of who I was.” Experiences such as the drum workshop bring together “mental, spiritual, physical, emotional,” she said. “Things like that are hard to find.”
“The Masses are so fulfilling,” Wentworth said. “Everyone knows what they’re doing, they know the songs, they fully participate. … The liturgies are always exceptional. You can count on it being extremely good.” Thiele agreed, “Even before I come, I start anticipating how beautiful it’s going to be. It’s the whole community coming together.”
Chaplaincy is “one of the most important things in my life.” Wentworth said. “I’m proud to be a member, and I tell people about the standards for certification.”
Both of them praised Union Station Hotel as the venue for the conference; the former bustling transportation hub, whose history is clear in its architecture, provided a much more unusual atmosphere than a typical conference hotel.
At a workshop on interdisciplinary staff care, Beverly Beltramo of Dearborn, MI, explained how Oakwood Healthcare System had set up a system to debrief hospital staff after a particular traumatic event, such as the death of a child. Nurses, chaplains, and managers have been trained to step in immediately after the event, perhaps at the end of a shift, to offer their presence to staffers who worked on the case.
Those staffers include chaplains, too. Co-presenter Susan Mozena, a Presbyterian minister, said that after being with the family of an 18-month-old who died, she also had feelings to express. When Beltramo arrived to meet with staff who had worked with the child, “I put my hands on her shoulders, sobbed once, and was basically OK,” Mozena said. “I needed to let my guard down.”
Beltramo said that the system paid to train 20 people as responders, but due to the challenges of time and getting people together in the same room, “it’s not easy to maintain.”
Beltramo also described other ways the spiritual care staff ministers to staffers, including daily short meditation sessions, daily affirmation phone messages, and puppies and kittens. “Now every time we’re doing something big,” she said, “it’s, ‘Hey Bev, we want the puppies!’”
The conference’s Sunday evening banquet was a chance to present the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago with the Outstanding Colleague Award. The group runs a number of nursing homes and skilled care facilities in several Midwestern states, always with “profound support for spiritual care,” said NACC Executive Director David Lichter.
In accepting the award, Sr. M. Francis Clare Radke, chair of the board of directors, said, “We have seen successful survey results, but more importantly, we know we have cared for people as Jesus would. … God emanates from each of you, even when you are not aware of it.”
Joe Bozzelli, of Edgewood, KY, received the Distinguished Service Award for his multiple volunteer roles with the NACC over the last 20 years, including certification interviewing, conference co-chair, Certification Commission, and deploying to six disasters. He even did an extra unit of CPE, Judy Shemkovitz teasingly noted in her introduction.
“I see how God worked in my life through service to others,” Bozzelli said in his acceptance speech. “Much of who I am and who I strive to be is due to my vocation as a chaplain.” He added, “Each of us has been blessed to be of service to others, and we are called to pay it forward.”
In a workshop on spiritual assessment for people with dementia, Maria McLain Cox described techniques for reaching people who may be considered unreachable. Usually, she said, she talks with the person’s children or others who knew them well, to learn what they were passionate about in earlier life.
But she told one story of a woman who didn’t respond to any of her previous interests — dogs, nature, Catholicism, etc. — until someone happened to hand her a doll, and she began to care for the doll as if it were a baby. Upon questioning, the woman’s husband said that they had never had children, and it had been a sorrow to her. “Dementia robbed my wife of so many things,” he said. “I’m glad it gave her the chance to be a mother.” And many in the audience reached for the Kleenex boxes on the tables.