Hospital, fire chaplains walk holy ground
Praying the rosary with an elderly woman and her family during her final moments, seeing her let go of life in peace, and being asked by her family to share a Scripture reading at her funeral.
That experience is just one example of the kind of faith-affirming moments often encountered by chaplains in hospitals, said Valerie Wecker, director of Mission Services at Avera St. Anthony Hospital in O’Neill.
"This was very profound for me – very humbling," she said of the encounter one year ago. "I was blessed to be in this position."
"It’s holy ground," said Wecker, whose role also includes serving as a pastoral minister to patients and families.
Fire chaplains also have a special calling, said Father Frank Jindra, a chaplain for the Omaha Fire Department. It’s serving those who serve, and helping people at some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives, he said.
MEETING EMOTIONAL, SPIRITUAL NEEDS
A member of St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill, Wecker has held her post the past three years after 30 years in nursing and administration at the hospital.
"Because of my Catholic faith, I found myself wanting to do more than just caring for the physical needs," she said. "When I had distraught patients, being able to care for the emotional part of their journey opened up and widened the care I was providing."
The challenges of her work require Wecker to leave her comfort zone and enter into the "uncomfort zone" of the patient. "You become ‘intimate strangers’ to each other, and sometimes people really open up," she said.
The most difficult situations involve cancer diagnoses, especially when the patient has no faith or support system, she said. "They have no hope, and I try to help them recognize there is hope."
But finding the right words can be a challenge, she said. "When I’m not able to explain and I don’t have the answers, I allow the silence to take its course. Sometimes I pray for the words, and inevitably, they come."
Wecker’s work is not always so emotionally charged. Routine duties include visiting hospital patients and bringing daily Communion to Catholic patients.
She also offers pre-operative prayers with patients and families, serves as a liaison with families and doctors in trauma situations, and assists patients transferring to nursing care.
"Through my Catholic values and upbringing, I know there’s a blessedness in life after death," Wecker said. "I truly believe in the greatness of eternity. It’s a great sustainer for me."
SERVING THOSE WHO SERVE
Serving others in times of critical need also motivates Father Jindra, who has been a fire chaplain the past year-and-a-half.
Father Jindra, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Mary parishes in Omaha, also serves as a chaplain in honor of his late father, who was an Omaha firefighter for 27 years.
"First responders are under a lot of pressure, and when they’re affected by what they’ve experienced, they need help, either on-scene or afterwards," he said.
Father Jindra is one of four fire chaplains in Omaha, along with retired Father Charles Swanson, and two Protestant ministers.
With his turnout gear always in his car, Father Jindra is ready to respond to fire calls when available, to help firefighters or fire victims. "When I’ve shown up, they’re always very welcoming and glad I’m there," he said.
Father Jindra developed an affinity for the chaplaincy when he served as a Navy chaplain, including 11 months of active duty in the early 1990s during Desert Storm.
There, he was assigned to a Marine battalion, participating in all their maneuvers and deployments, counseling Marines who were suffering because of what they’d seen, and administering last rites.
Father Jindra said the chaplaincy gives him a different level of fulfillment as a priest, being able to minister to people who put their own lives on the line.
He recalled a conversation with his father about the aches and pains suffered in later life due to his job.
"Firefighters have a unique way of answering the Gospel," he said. "Jesus said, ‘Who would choose to die for someone they don’t know?’ But firefighters in essence run that very risk by running into a burning building."
"You put yourself at risk throughout your career for the sake of others," he told his father, "and now you’re feeling the pains of those injuries, but that’s another way to continue offering yourself, like you did on the fire department."
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