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Called to chaplaincy: Personal loss spurs Joel Bregman to serve others

It was a good job, and a good life.

Joel Bregman had built a successful sales career with a machine manufacturing company, even working his way up to vice president of sales.

Still, Bregman said, he always felt a hole inside.

That empty feeling faded when his oldest child, a son named Mikael, was born. His birth brought challenges, however, since he arrived 12 weeks early and needed to live in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Then at 8 months old, the baby suffered multiple cardiac arrests that lead to severe brain damage. By his 11th month, doctors told the Bregmans their son was likely to live only for another year and suggested he stay at a facility for children with developmental disabilities.

But Bregman and his wife took Mikael home and the boy became the light of their family’s world. Outside of work, Bregman’s life centered around the care of his oldest son.

“While he suffered mental and developmental challenges, emotionally he was such a joyful child,” Bregman said. “Such a happy little boy.”

But at age 7, Mikael required surgery for a displaced hip – an injury common for children who cannot control their own movement. He did not survive the procedure.

“My wife was pregnant with our fourth child by then, but I fell into a very deep depression,” Bregman said. “I felt like I was living a life with no meaning and became what I’d call an angry atheist.”

He returned to his sales work, and soon Bregman found himself in unexpected situations.

On two separate occasions, customers arrived at his office for business and began to cry during conversations. Both had lost a child, and Bregman found himself instinctively counseling them.

“It was at that point that I thought ‘Something is going on here. Someone is trying to tell me something,’” Bregman recalled.

Weeks later, Bregman’s car became stuck in a snowstorm and he listened to NPR while he awaited roadside assistance. The evening’s program was on pediatric hospice and, suddenly, Bregman felt like something had hit him in the chest.

“This is what I’m meant to do,” he thought.

So at age 50, Bregman said goodbye to his successful sales career and enrolled at Loyola University Chicago to earn a master’s degree in pastoral counseling.

Bregman wears many hats, whether working directly with patients, helping with Camp Courage bereavement camps – or literally wearing a hat as Santa during the holidays.

 

After graduation he joined JourneyCare, working as both a chaplain for the Barrington-based pediatric team and serving adults admitted to inpatient Hospice CareCenters. He also led a grief support group for parents who had lost a child.

Three years ago, Bregman began to serve JourneyCare’s current Chicago team, working with adults and children in the Ada F. Addington Hospice CareCenter in Chicago and serving pediatric patients in their homes.

Today, the hole Bregman once felt is gone.

“I feel fulfilled,” he said. “To quote the motto of the Peace Corps, this is the hardest job you’ll ever love. All of the connections we make with patients are sacred, and they are all about love, compassion and kindness.”

In his role as a chaplain, Bregman strives to meet patients and their families wherever they may be – no matter what their religious background.

Sometimes this means leading prayer, officiating a memorial service or being an ambassador for people who want to connect with a Catholic priest or a Muslim imam. Other times it may be as simple as playing a game of Uno or fetching a glass of water.

Bregman also works with many patients who are searching for answers about the meaning of life, or who wrestle with regrets. Ultimately, he says, the goal is to help them feel compassion and unconditional love.

Bregman says it takes a team effort to make that possible: work from doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, social workers and even behind-thescenes team like the finance and philanthropy departments, who make sure all patients can receive care regardless of income.

“It is an honor for me to do this work, especially since we treat everyone with the same compassion and care,” Bregman said. “Someone with no money receives the same care as someone who has a million dollars. This is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.”

 

Did you know …

… that chaplains like Joel Bregman are part of every clinical team that cares for JourneyCare patients?

Our hospice care is provided by a dedicated and specially trained interdisciplinary team of professionals, who work closely with our patients and their families to develop a plan of care tailored to support their unique needs, goals and wishes. Each team includes:

  • Board-Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Physicians who work with patients and their primary care physicians to develop a plan of care;
  • Registered Nurses who meet with patients and families on a regular basis to assess support needs, and coordinate communication with members of the care team;
  • Certified Nursing Assistants  who provide hands-on, personal care and help with activities of daily living;
  • Social Workers who provide our patients with a range of support services, including counseling and emotional support, education and help accessing community resources;
  • Chaplains to help patients and their families cope with illness through spiritual support, emotional support and life review;
  • Volunteers who are specially trained to provide assistance and support. They can provide companionship, run errands, provide light housekeeping, go grocery shopping or help with hobbies or crafts.

This team develops an individualized plan of care, focused on patient comfort, well-being and quality of life, both during curative treatment and after treatments have stopped. They also provide emotional and spiritual support, as well as access to community resources, that support individual needs.

 

– By Elisabeth Mistretta, JourneyCare Content Specialist
Originally published in Together to Care, Spring 2016

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