In the spring of 2016, I was laying on my back in a hospital bed at Duke University Medical Center. Sickness and disability have been a part of my life since I was born. My sister and I both had birth defects of our ears, which affected their development along with other birth and genetic complications. It is a miracle we can hear at all. We both developed diabetes at young ages. I lost my eyesight in 2012 from diabetic retinopathy. The spring of 2016 was the lowest point of my young life. My kidneys were failing and I was devastated. As I lay in bed, sad and angry with God, myself and the world for my condition, divine intervention happened. A young man knocked on my door, introduced himself as the chaplain and asked if he could speak with me. I don’t remember his visit in detail. I cannot tell you anything significant the chaplain said to me. But I don’t think it matters. What I will never forget was how that chaplain made me feel. He helped me feel like I was worthy of God’s love. That was what I needed in the moment.
The care of that chaplain helped me stop questioning my decision to enter Duke Divinity School. It also led me to fulfill my field education requirement in chaplaincy at the Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System (DVAHCS).
I’ve had some struggles as a blind chaplain in the DVAHCS. Initially, I had trouble getting permission to use the Java Access with Speech (JAWS) program on the VA computerized patient record system. This was eventually resolved, and I got access to patient medical records for charting. Learning to navigate the hospital wasn’t difficult because it wasn’t large. But sometimes veterans would grab my arm or my cane to assist me without first asking for permission. I learned to thank them while also informing them that I was OK and knew where I was going. I also had patients get upset with me because they believed that I was faking my blindness. Once, a patient angrily got in my face because he saw me typing on my laptop and assumed that if I could use a computer, I must not be blind. After removing my headphones so that the patient could hear my software communicating to me, he was quickly apologetic and embarrassed. I validated his concern and assured him that everything was OK between us.
Being a blind chaplain is challenging, but it also has its advantages. I believe that veterans are more open to sharing their stories with me because I cannot see them. It’s almost like I am a walking confession booth, my eyes a veil between us. I’ve oftentimes seen my own story wrapped in the lives of veterans struggling with PTSD, substance abuse and various mental health challenges. My experiences caring for my patients often nudge me to wrestle with my own issues of loneliness, self-worth, acceptance and forgiveness.
One veteran spoke to me about his guilt and shame stemming from his war experiences. He’d been traumatized by combat. He couldn’t accept God’s forgiveness. As we sat together and talked, he identified his fear that people would not love him if they learned about his past. This fear led him to disconnect from his faith and his family, especially his daughter. He’d turned to substance abuse to try to cope. This man’s story, as well as those of other veterans, reminds me of Proverbs 18:14: “The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit — who can bear?” The Hebrew word for bear means to lift up/carry. Surrounding our veterans with love and listening to their stories can help them carry the pain and suffering they shouldn’t have to shoulder alone. No one should have to shoulder pain alone. Healing and hope can come when we are willing to bear each other’s spirits.
Samuel “Jack” Hemingway III is a chaplain resident at the Durham VA Healthcare System in North Carolina. He is ordained in the Southern Baptist Church and endorsed by the North American Mission Board. Jack loves to sing and travel with family and friends.