By Jacob Luecke
Last November, Deacon Gene Kazmierczak was standing in Boone Hospital Center’s Spiritual Care office with two of his fellow chaplains.
The three chaplains were chatting about a new book. Moments like this are a big reason Deacon Gene, a Catholic, loves his work — he gets to share interesting conversation and ideas with leaders of other faiths.
“That’s really a great thing about it, interacting with the other chaplains,” he said. “We truly have a lot in common, spiritually.”
But on this morning, the conversation was cut short. As the chaplains talked, Deacon Gene suddenly felt weak.
“Oh,” said the faint Deacon. “I think I need a…”
And that’s as far as it went.
Two minutes later, he awoke lying on the office floor in a pool of blood. He saw the shoes of chaplains and hospital caregivers quickly moving around his head. “What the heck happened to me?” he thought.
They placed him into a wheelchair and rushed him across the hospital to the Emergency Department.
He would later learn his heart had gone into atrial fibrillation, causing him to temporarily lose blood flow and pass out. The blood on the floor came from a cut on his head from the fall.
He spent four days in the hospital as doctors studied how best to confront his newfound heart problem.
This was a frightening time for Deacon Gene.
“I understand dying,” he said. “But here I had to face my own mortality and that put a different twist on things.”
During this time, he found comfort in his faith. Chaplain Chuck Barsamian came to Deacon Gene’s room and prayed with him. Fr. Brendan Griffey also came and performed the anointing of the sick with sacramental oil.
And through those actions, “I felt God’s healing touch,” he said.
Called to Care
Long before he was a deacon, Gene Kazmierczak was a nurse in the Army. He served in that role for 29 years before retiring and getting a job at Boone Hospital.
Here, he worked in a managerial role before realizing direct patient care gave him greater satisfaction. He then returned to the bedside, working for several years as a staff nurse in outpatient recovery and later on the hospital’s skilled nursing unit.
When he was ready to retire, his former pastor asked him if he would become a deacon and serve hospital patients around Columbia. Gene agreed.
“Being a nurse for over 40 years, it seemed like a nice follow up,” he said. “I’m still going to the bedside. I used to take care of the body; now I take care of the spiritual aspect.”
Although his home parish is St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbia, Deacon Gene spends three days a week in his hospital ministry.
Each week, he goes down a list of the Catholic patients, visits with them and makes sure their spiritual needs are met. He also relishes the opportunity to pray with patients of other faiths.
“I can’t tell the difference between Catholic tears or Protestant tears,” he said. “There is a lot that we share.”
Each day in the hospital is a reminder of the many stages of life. He blesses newborn babies and their mothers. He prays with patients before they go into surgery. He shares grief with families who have just lost someone they love.
Wherever he goes, he reminds people that a hospital room can be a sacred place and that God is present at the bedside.
“Caring for a patient involves their body, mind and their spirit,” he said. “Chaplains bring the spiritual aspect to it. The assistance we offer really counts.”
Today, Deacon Gene has long since healed from his fall in the Spiritual Care office.
He said he owes his recovery to skilled clinicians, modern technology and the hand of God.
He was discharged from the hospital with a cardiac loop recorder. The device monitors patients’ heart rhythms and records any abnormal activity. The data doctors obtained from the recorder showed Deacon Gene was a candidate for a pacemaker. He had one implanted to regulate any future arrhythmia.
Although the technology fixed his heart, Deacon Gene said God played a role as well.
Just days before collapsing in the Spiritual Care office, the deacon and his wife, Ginger, had traveled across the country to Fort Irwin, in the California desert, to visit their son — they have three children and five grandkids.
What if the deacon’s arrhythmia would have happened while he was driving on the interstate? What if it happened while he and his family were hiking in secluded hills a few days earlier?
“That it happened here in the hospital, it’s just, wow,” he said. “There was some kind of intervention and it wasn’t human.”
His experience also helped him understand how much his ministry matters.
In the hospital, there are times when the doctor has left the room and the nurses and staff are serving other patients. In these moments alone, the impossible question surfaces, “why is this happening to me?”
“That’s the spot where the chaplain comes in,” Deacon Gene said.
Although even a chaplain can’t answer that question, they can provide a listening ear and a reminder of God’s presence. And that can bring immeasurable comfort.
“We give them someone to talk to,” he said. “That’s the most important thing about chaplaincy — listening.”