By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – No one would tell the East Hartford police officer he was blind. After all, he was supposed to be dead.
Todd Lentocha told this personal story – and signed copies of his just-published book – May 6 at the Divine Mercy Medicine, Bioethics & Spirituality Conference at the College of the Holy Cross.
He talked about what happened after a pickup truck traveling 73 miles per hour slammed into his parked cruiser. The cover of his self-published book, “Officer Down, Man Up,” features a photo of that mangled car.
His nurse Marie Romagnano, her voice breaking, showed the photo of the accident – and one of how he looked when she first saw him in the Hartford Hospital. She told listeners what most impressed her was how his wife, Alison, said, “No matter how he is, we want him.”
“I got the first draft of this book,” said Ms. Romagnano, conference organizer, a member of St. Joseph Basilica in Webster and a catastrophic injury registered nurse for her company, Med-Link Inc.
“And I got, ‘You’ve got to clean that up,’” Mr. Lentocha said of her response to his rough language.
Mrs. Lentocha, a registered nurse in ambulatory surgery at Manchester Hospital in Connecticut, spoke about the spiritual efforts made for her husband.
He introduced himself as a 45-year-old, married nearly 21 years, with three children, a former Marine, and, as of April 30, a published author.
Mr. Lentocha said his story started Jan. 4, 2012 when he was working overtime, looking for a burglary suspect. Hit by a speeding truck, he was knocked unconscious.
Mr. Lentocha said more than 90 percent of people with head injuries like his die. He was taken to surgery and for the next 30 days his wife didn’t leave the hospital.
Then he awoke and asked his wife what happened. She was shocked; as a nurse she understood the extent of his injuries. The next day he was sent to a rehabilitation hospital.
His short-term memory was horrible and he didn’t know he was blind, he said. He could distinguish shapes and colors and figured that, once off medication, he’d regain his sight.
Seventeen days after he started rehabilitation he went home, but didn’t recover his sight. Exams revealed his eyes and optic nerve were fine but a big piece of his brain was missing, he said, joking, “In the police business we call that a clue.”
But “I kept hope alive,” thinking, “Maybe the vision rehabilitation will get me to the point where I can do some things,” he said. A doctor told him, “Most people with this injury don’t make it; those who do are not like you.”
Mr. Lentocha said that statement “removed the burden of hope.” He’d been hoping his old life would return. He realized he had to move on.
He turned to writing, with help from a program that taught him to type, and listened to audio books by people who’d suffered adversity. Years before, he’d written a novel he never published. He found writing about his recovery therapeutic and wanted to show his children he didn’t quit when knocked down.
Mrs. Lentocha said the first person to reach her husband after the accident was passerby Rev. Mark Santostefano, pastor of The Worship Center in Hebron, Conn. He prayed for her husband there and visited daily at the hospital, praying in the room and waiting room.
Someone gave her a “Mary medal” which she wore, and each day she blessed her husband with holy oil. Sometimes she’d say, “I don’t know if you believe in this, but I do.” She said he was not religious, but they were raising their children Catholic.
At her church, a friend lit all the prayer candles for him, she said. And people gave her prayer shawls.
At a Mass that their priest said for her husband at the hospital, she thought about how to plan his funeral; his body was shutting down from medications used to keep him in a coma to rest his brain.
When the coma-inducing medications were stopped, he wiggled a toe. When she brought their children in, he started to cry, she said, adding, “I saw he was inside there.”
Now, she says, she’s sad for his losses and the losses she and their children have suffered.
“The good news is he’ll always see me as 39 years old,” she quipped, adding that she’s grateful they still have him. She also expressed gratitude for others’ support, mentioning cards, gifts, money and food.
“My faith in God … people … was restored” through this accident, she said.
Ms. Romagnano concluded the presentation, holding up the Divine Mercy image and saying, “This is what we had in the ICU.”
Exploring spirituality in health care
By Tanya Connor
Does God want people to be well?
This basic question was addressed from various angles at the 11th annual Divine Mercy Medicine, Bioethics and Spirituality Conference, held May 6 and 7 at the College of the Holy Cross.
The Marians of the Immaculate Conception, who run the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, help organize the conference, which is sponsored by Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Office of Continuing Medical Education. Healthcare professionals can get academic credit for attending.
Sickness kept keynote speaker Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski from coming, but his talks were read to attendees. President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers at the Vatican, he looked at prayer and healing in his second talk “Spirituality in Frailty.” (His first talk was, “The Revision and Updating of the Charter for Health Care Workers.”)
“The Christian understanding of health … includes the whole of the human person … the physical, the psychological, the social and the spiritual,” he wrote in his second talk.
“Healing … can mean the recovery of physical health or of a mentally-ill person, or social and spiritual harmony even when complete physical healing has not been achieved.”
He said prayer helps transform illness into a journey of faith that helps the sick strengthen their relationship with God, learn the lesson of weakness, grow in solidarity with those who suffer, and deepen faith in eternal life.
The archbishop said it is praiseworthy to pray for healing and that prayer leads Christians to care for the sick and to try to defeat illness. Prayer should also be offered for and by those who show God’s love by helping the sick, he said.
David Came said it was helpful to him that the archbishop focused on fraility. Mr. Came, outgoing executive editor of the Marian Helper magazine, was speaking to The Catholic Free Press before giving his talk about trusting in God as he lives with Parkinson’s Disease.
In today’s society, frailty is viewed as a problem, but when embraced with the right motive, it can be a source of transcendence, he said. He said he prays for healing, but must prepare for decreases in his abilities. Perhaps his “most glorious and important apostolate” will be to offer his sufferings in union with Jesus on the cross, he said.
“If there’s value to suffering, why do we try to relieve it?” Marian Father Chris Alar, director of the Association of Marian Helpers, asked in his talk.
Father Alar spoke about the redemptive value of suffering like Christ and shared saints’ praise of its benefits.
To the common question about suffering, “How could God allow this to happen?” he gave the answer, “God will always bring a greater good.”
He told healthcare workers if they can’t say this to patients, they can live it in the way they bring God’s love, perhaps simply with a smile or a gentle touch.
“Your approach to them, showing them their human dignity and their human worth, will change their approach to the rest of their life,” he said. Despite being busy, “we can’t treat them like they’re a burden.” He told listeners their goal is to provide the best patient care even if they can’t heal the patient physically.
The panel of speakers which Bishop McManus led also addressed the question of God’s will in relation to health.
Ellen Rohan-Ball, senior physical therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, said God does want people to be well. She said Luke was a physician and his Gospel contains stories of healings. The Greek words for “heal” and “save” are often used interchangably, she said.
Marian Father Seraphim Michalenko said those words come from the same root and that salvation is not only about forgiveness of sins. He has served the congregation and promoted Divine Mercy in a variety of ways over the years.
“Jesus wants salvation for us,” he said. “It’s a done deal. … We have to accept it.”
Father Kazimierz Chwalek, Marian Provincial Superior in Stockbridge, noted that the anointing of the sick is for healing and forgiveness. A listener spoke of confession as a healing sacrament too.
The panel also addressed the situation of frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures.
Responding to a question about what happens to these embryos’ souls, Father Chwalek said they are are “frozen in time for us, but to God they’re always alive.” He said they are human beings, “no one is outside of salvation,” and if the electricity fails, God calls them back to himself.
Bishop McManus said one of the “thorniest” questions is what to do with frozen embryos; there is much discussion about it in the theological community. Some theologians advocate adopting them, and some oppose that, he said.
Conference attendees rejoiced in spiritual, social and professional benefits they gained from being there.
Most helpful is how the priests show health care professionals how to apply the teachings of Christ and the Church to their work, said Dr. Allan Ramey, a rheumatologist in private practice.
“We know what the problems are, and then when we hear the tenets of the faith clearly stated, we know what to do,” said the Maronite Catholic who worships at St. Cecilia Parish in Leominster.
He contrasted this with what he called a self-centered approach therapists often encourage patients to take, by asking what they feel comfortable with, but not going a step higher to where Jesus wants them to be.
“It reinforced what I already felt – it’s so important to bring the spiritual to your work” and encourage patients to do the same, said Kathy Blake, a registered nurse with Harvard-Vanguard in the Boston area, said of the conference. “It’s a huge shot in the arm to see everybody else; you’re not alone.” One learns a lot too, she said.
Mariel del Rio-Cadorette, a medical doctor in private practice in East Providence, spoke of the need for filling oneself with spirituality, of meeting other Catholic health care professionals, of learning new things and of planning to buy Divine Mercy cards to give patients.