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Blind chaplain thankful, lives each day to its fullest

Chaplain Lee Casey waterskis on Whipple Lake near Baxter in mid-July. Casey is blind, but that has not stopped him from doing many of the activities he enjoyed before losing his vision on his 17th birthday. Contributed photo

Chaplain Lee Casey waterskis on Whipple Lake near Baxter in mid-July. Casey is blind, but that has not stopped him from doing many of the activities he enjoyed before losing his vision on his 17th birthday. Contributed photo

It’s hard to beat summertime in the Brainerd area with its lakes and abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities. Lee Casey was a farm boy from southwestern Iowa when he and his family first vacationed in the area in the early 1970s. When he was 10, he learned to waterski on Gull Lake, and he’s been skiing ever since. His lifelong love of the sport and memories of boyhood summers in the area were among the reasons why he and his family returned to Brainerd in 2013.

Casey is a board-certified chaplain and director of Mission and Spiritual Care at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd. He and his wife, Dawn, and their three children moved to the area after spending 14 years at St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island, Neb.

In 1979, on his 17th birthday, Casey was riding his Yamaha 650 motorcycle near his hometown of Griswold, Iowa, when he swerved to avoid an oncoming car, lost control of the bike and had an accident that changed his life. His head crashed through the windshield, and he was left blind. “I can see a little glow in the dark in my left eye,” he explained. He had broken facial bones, so, to allow them to heal, his jaw was wired shut for 11 weeks. Casey remembers meals of pudding, mashed potatoes and malts. He remembers how happy he was when his mother began blending roast beef to add to his meals.

Following his accident, Casey was hospitalized for two weeks. “I had some challenging moments,” he said, “and I had thoughts of, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ a couple of times, but I didn’t blame God, and I didn’t go through a dark period of feeling sorry for myself.” Instead, he turned toward God and others for support, and he had his first thoughts about a career in the ministry.

Casey gives credit for his outlook on life to his family and growing up with a strong work ethic. He was the youngest of five children. “Growing up on a farm, we were used to working hard. We worked together – pulling weeds out of the soybean field, cleaning the hog barn, baling hay, and we attended church every weekend.” He stresses that faith is his foundation and that everything else flows from that. He accepts that blindness is not from God and that every person has challenges in life.

Less than two months after his accident, Casey, with his mouth still wired shut, went waterskiing on Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa. “It was the first time I’d gone skiing since the accident, and it was a wild feeling. But when I crossed the wake, I wiped out, and that was the end of skiing for that year.”

In his work as a chaplain, Casey is part of the medical team. He provides spiritual support to patients and families of all faiths, and to those without faith and, when requested, he’ll make church connections. The support of co-workers is also critical in his work. He uses a cane to navigate the halls of the hospital and Braille tags to identify all of the rooms. In 1993, in his position as a chaplain resident at Des Moines Mercy Hospital, Casey labeled 400 rooms with Braille tags. The hospital had eight floors and two towers. “I wanted to learn where all the rooms were so I could be as independent as possible,” he said. At the time, his work included on-call hours and some evenings. “I have learned to do what I can and ask others for help when needed.”

When visiting patients, Casey finds that most people are welcoming. “I always knock and introduce myself and ask for permission before entering a room. If it’s a good time to visit, I ask how things are going. I ask about family and who is there for them and where they’re going after leaving the hospital. I’ll contact their pastor for them if they want. I want to be supportive.” Casey wears a Braille sense notetaker, which talks to him and records information, so he can take notes of all of his visits, which are confidential. When patients first meet him, Casey thinks it helps them to put things into perspective. “They see me entering their room, and they might think, ‘If this guy can do it, so can I.’ It encourages them.”

If a person opens up to him and expresses concerns, Casey listens to what they have to say and responds to their feelings. “I might ask, ‘What brings you joy?’ or ‘What are your interests?’ I try to focus on the positive and ask how they can find purpose and meaning in life. If a person is given enough time, they’ll come up with the answers.” He emphasized, “It’s not my job to fix, but I can help explain options.” Having gone through his own long recovery following his motorcycle accident has helped Casey empathize with others in need.

“It was a pleasant surprise,” Casey said, “when a few weeks ago, I met two patients, back to back, and they both said they knew me.” They had met him two years before when both were patients. After talking with each of them for a while, Casey began remembering some of the details of those visits. “I don’t know why, but after hundreds of conversations, it came back to me.” What he had considered to be just “ordinary visits” had made an impression on two former patients, and it felt good. “It affirmed my work.”

Casey’s love for his job and commitment to help others is an inspiration to many patients and co-workers. He faces daily challenges because of his visual impairment with little complaint. “Blindness is something I deal with,” he said. “I trust God to provide for me, but the reality is I need transportation, and I need to arrange rides to work every day. I usually ride with my wife, my son or a co-worker. We Americans like to be independent, but I don’t know how I’m getting home today yet. I have to start thinking about that soon.”

Modern technology has helped Casey with his work as a chaplain. He’s had a talking computer since 1988, and he receives regular training on updates from Minnesota State Services for the Blind.

“The key for me is being grateful,” Casey said. “I’m grateful every day, for my health, my family and humor. I don’t take anything for granted.”

Casey hasn’t waterskied in 2016 yet, but he likes to stay active doing things like swimming, skating or roller skating. He snow skis in the winter with a partner who skis behind him and gives verbal commands. As long as it’s not windy and he can hear, there are no problems.

It could be an ordinary visit with a patient or an ordinary day on the lake or on a ski slope. Lee Casey is someone who makes an impression.

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