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A Hospice Chaplain and the Little Girl who Captured His Heart

Her name was Estella.

I was struck by her name when we were informed there would be a little 7-year-old girl coming into our hospice care unit.  It was a beautiful name and was as unique as she was.

Preparations were underway to get her room ready and we found that the side rail of the baby crib that slides up and down was loose. As a chaplain, I pitch in and help staff wherever I can.  I immediately seized the opportunity to work on my ‘inpatient maintenance merit badge’ and ran down to the facilities department for tools.  Thus began my unexpected connection with a little girl I had never met, born with infantile cerebral palsy.

Disassembling the side rail brought back instant memories of my three children and my own childhood.  I remembered putting together my firstborn daughter’s crib, my other daughter sleeping in that crib, and my son later on.  I felt like a father on the unit that day.

My thoughts drifted to my own childhood in upstate New York. I remembered the smell of freshly cut grass on the huge lawn my father use to mow in the summertime, and the sound of rain hitting the roof of my grandparents’ lake house, where I spent so many summers as a boy.

The room was prepared.  The crib was ready.  The nurse had put the sheets and bumpers on.  We had also positioned a three-foot stuffed giraffe named Shirley by the crib as a welcome. Then, everyone went about their business as we waited for Estella to arrive.

I saw the stretcher coming down the hallway.  The nurse went in and got Estella situated while I was called away to another room.  Three quarters of an hour had passed until I was finally able to knock on her door, looking for her parents.  No one was there.  The nurse informed me that they were unable to come.  I returned to the room to sit . . . it just didn’t feel right to leave her all alone, that little girl in such a big room.

I stood by Estella’s crib and saw her for the first time. She was as cute as a button.  Her long brown hair had been wrapped up into a bun.  Curled up in a little ball, she had her favorite blanket bundled up against her back.  The nurse told me the feel of it calmed her down.  But that was all Estella could sense; she was deaf and blind due to her cerebral palsy.

She had a little oxygen mask on and looked so peaceful, like she was just taking a nap.  How many times had I slipped into my children’s rooms while they were sleeping just to watch them?  The hiss of oxygen was the only noise in the room and on this occasion it seemed soothing.

I sat down beside the crib for almost an hour and pondered . . . as a father on the unit that day.

Looking out the sliding glass door at the garden outside her room, I saw the sun shining through the trees onto the wet grass.  It had rained earlier and water sparkled on the lawn.  I thought of Estella –that she had never been able to see the sun, run through the grass or climb a tree. She never got to hear the sounds of the world or her parents’ voices.

It struck me how precious this little girl was.  She was precious in the eyes of the hospice staff and precious in the eyes of her Creator in heaven.

Estella wasn’t just valuable now as a little human being, deserving of dignity and care, she was valuable as a child of God, destined to be made whole again in heaven.  I said a prayer for her, thanking God that one day Estella would be made whole. I also thanked God that one day I would get to meet her again.

The clock on the wall told me I had to leave.  There were other patients and families who needed support.  But had I known what was about to happen, I would have stayed longer.

I arrived early at work the following day, planning on visiting her room first thing.  But before I could, my supervisor came into the office and broke the news.  Estella died last night a little after 10:30, just eight hours after I sat with her.  We knew she wouldn’t be with us long but I assumed there would be a little more time.  I hadn’t said goodbye. I hadn’t said a final prayer, as I do over so many other patients. I hadn’t prepared. 

While the staff bustled about starting their day, I slipped away into a closed wing of the building. My time as a father on the unit that day had come to an abrupt end. I have never lost a child and wouldn’t presume to know how those parents feel, but I wept.  In just a few hours Estella had captured my heart.

But through my tears of grief I began to smile.  I said a prayer thanking God for receiving Estella unto Himself.  I smiled because I could picture her finally whole, running, leaping, and dancing for joy with her Creator.  I pictured her looking into his eyes and knowing the warmth of his embrace.

I thanked God that I would get to see Estella again, and see her as she was meant to be.

And I thanked God for allowing me to be a father on the unit that day.

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Joe McNett is an ordained minister and a chaplain at a Trustbridge hospice inpatient care unit in West Palm Beach, FL.

The ordained ministers and rabbis who are our hospice chaplains comfort patients and families of all faiths and those without spiritual beliefs.  They listen without judgement, help families express love and forgiveness, and come to peace and acceptance. They offer these acts of kindness and compassion every day for others. How do these meaningful interactions affect these people of faith, who are comforting others? In this beautiful piece, Chaplain Joe McNett gives us some insight.