‘May I walk you home?’

Catholic Community Hospice accompanies families ‘on a journey’

by Jessica Langon

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Nancy Burch had just arrived in her New York City hotel when the phone call came.
“You need to turn around and come back home.”

Burch, a parishioner of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, had moved her mother, Ninfa Garza, in with her about a year earlier so she could care for her better after Garza’s stroke.

Garza was widely known for her work with senior citizens and for her homemade Mexican food at Ninfa’s Tortillas and Taqueria in Kansas City, Kan. But the stroke had left her weak and unable to manage alone.

She had seemed to be in good spirits, however, that morning in 2012 as Burch and her daughter Tiffani departed for New York on a trip Tiffani had won.

But before their New York adventure even got underway, Garza’s condition suddenly deteriorated.
As Burch and Tiffani boarded a flight home, they only muted the ringer on the phone instead of turning it off, just in case the call came.

And it did.

Garza was dying.

Burch’s mother was not only a lifelong Catholic, but a very devout one. So Burch took great comfort in knowing that Sister Judith Jackson, SCL, a chaplain with Catholic Community Hospice, was at the house with her mother in her final hours — as she often had been over the past several months.

As Sister Judith led other family members in a rosary around Garza, Burch and Tiffani were able to add their voices to the ancient prayer via cellphone.

After Garza died, Tiffani turned to her mother in the plane and said, “Well, I guess we’re the ones who are closest to Grandma now.”

On a journey

When the travelers finally made it home, said Burch, “I walked in the door — Sister Judith was right there.
“She came back the next day — and the next day — and talked to me.”

Having Catholic Community Hospice as part of the team taking care of her meant the world to Garza.

“Mom just absolutely loved it,” said Burch.

And Sister Judith felt exactly the same.

As one of three chaplains with Catholic Community Hospice, Sister Judith often views her work as joining people on a journey.

It was while she was doing a clinical rotation for an advanced degree in spirituality that Sister Judith was called to minister to the sick and dying.

But many of her colleagues at Catholic Community Hospice, a service of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, feel likewise called to this unique ministry.

“This is such a beautiful place to be,” many say, said Judy Walker, vice president of program operations and health services with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

Sister Judith often discovers common bonds — through family ties, parishes, schools, or other connections — that link her own life story with the journey of the families she meets through her hospice work.

These common bonds can offer incredible comfort to people during their time of need.

“It was just like having family help us — extended family,” said Rich Teahan, a member of Church of the Nativity in Leawood.

His wife JoAnn Teahan — mother to their six children, grandmother to 19 and great-grandmother to six — worked as a medical technologist and was active with many organizations, including Catholic Charities. She and Rich, in fact, were involved with its longtime fundraiser, the Snow Ball.

“The organization as a whole is very special to her,” said Kathy Jantsch, the Teahans’ oldest child. “When we realized that her time had come and she was going to use hospice, there was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to use them.”

JoAnn had battled cancer years before, but had improved. Then the cancer entered the bone and, after about two years of treatment, her condition took a rapid turn.

Several health services converged to help with her care, including Catholic Community Hospice and the Sisters, Servants of Mary.

She was able to spend her final days at home in her own bedroom. It was as perfect as a bad situation could be, said Rich.

“It became a very comforting process for us because everyone who came through the door was coming from the same place in terms of their spiritual or faith-focused ministry,” said Jantsch.

Sister Judith and many family members were there when JoAnn died in 2012.

“It was very tough,” said Rich. “But having Sister [Judith] there and having her hugging people and helping people — I think she even asked what the kids would have thought if JoAnn was there, what would she say to them — it was very comforting.

“Obviously, that’s her vocation, and she does it very well.”

‘Be able to move among the people’

Catholic Community Hospice’s staff and volunteers tend to a patient’s physical needs, but also to the emotional and spiritual needs of the patient and family.

“It really is an all-encompassing service,” said Walker.

Nurses, home health aides, massage and music therapists, social workers and chaplains provide individually tailored care.

Sister Judith strives to give a calming presence.

“You have to be able to move among the people and see where the needs are,” she said.

She visits as often or as little as a patient desires and works to understand who the person is.

Patients are offered opportunities to review their lives. Sister Judith often recommends reading for patients and families. A favorite for Catholics is Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin’s “The Gift of Peace.” There’s also an element of preparing family members to live once their loved one is gone.

“The real focus and goal for hospice is to improve quality of life and to give families and patients hope,” said Walker.

Beyond hope for quality of life and comfort in the days that remain, it is hope in the resurrection and all that is encompassed by the faith.

A wish to stay at home

Janet Strohmeyer, who lives in Austin, Texas, can’t imagine the final months of her aunt’s life without Catholic Community Hospice.

The hospice had cared for Strohmeyer’s mother, and so it just seemed natural to bring them in for Mary Helen Trowbridge.

Trowbridge, a longtime parishioner of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., wished to die in the only home she’d ever known. A hospital bed was set up in front of a dining room window — her favorite spot in the house.

Despite the distance, Strohmeyer felt deeply connected to her aunt’s care through visits when she was in town, as well as calls and texts with updates from hospice.

The same village it takes to raise a child, believes Strohmeyer, is needed to care for the elderly at times like this.

That’s the only way family — with a nephew staying at the house and relatives coming on a rotating schedule to help, along with health care providers — could have made this happen.

Trowbridge died during a snowstorm this past February, and Strohmeyer was touched to see Sister Judith at the funeral.

“I believe in the paschal mystery, the suffering, the death and the resurrection,” said Sister Judith. “I really benefit from going to their services.”

But the funeral is far from the last point of contact between the family and Catholic Community Hospice. Grief support is offered for 13 months following a patient’s death.

“It’s just very gratifying that they will see you through your whole journey,” said Strohmeyer. “It doesn’t end the day the person dies.”

‘May I accompany you?’

Burch feels that her mother would have chosen exactly the care she received through Catholic Community Hospice.

“She would tell me all the time, ‘Thank you for bringing these ladies from Catholic Charities here,’” said Burch.

They both enjoyed visits from the chaplain during which they would receive Communion and pray together.

One image Sister Judith encounters often in reading strikes a chord in her work.

“May I walk you home? May I accompany you on this journey?” she said. “That’s kind of what I say to people.”

“They’re such a comfort and a guidance,” said Strohmeyer. “You don’t deal with these kinds of things every day in your life.”

Likewise, it was comforting to Jantsch to have a guide during an overwhelming time — even just someone to offer a prayer or information about what to expect.

“It’s almost like angels here on earth, and you develop such an appreciation for their ministry,” said Jantsch. “That they have the ability to do this day in and day out is really something special.”

About the author

Jessica Langdon

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