During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I met one of the gentlest souls I have ever known. Her name was Bertha, and she was a resident in the county nursing home at which I was volunteering as part of my confirmation service project. At that time, Bertha was, at the age of 89, the oldest person I had ever had the pleasure of knowing. The lessons she shared with me that summer have stuck with me despite the fact that over 30 years have since elapsed.
Bertha often spoke fondly of her childhood and the dedicated work ethic that her parents fostered in Bertha and her siblings on their family farm. At a young age, Bertha developed rheumatoid arthritis – the kind of arthritis which gnarls the hands and fingers, twisting them and painfully enlarging the joints. The arthritis eventually affected her hips, knees and ankles so that by the time Bertha reached early middle age she was severely crippled. She made a slow progression from walking with a cane to crutches and finally to a wheelchair. When I met Bertha, she was confined to an electric wheelchair that she was able to direct with a small joystick.
It was easy to tell when Bertha was in pain – but she never complained. The occasional grimace would cross her face or there might be a faint groan, but those were the only outward expressions that would telegraph the agony which Bertha must have felt most days. I was amazed that Bertha had discovered ways by which she was able not only to cope with her limitations, but turn them to a kind of advantage, not so much for herself, but for her fellow residents.
One of the many skills Bertha had learned as a child was to crochet beautifully. It was amazing to watch her hands as they would slowly yet deftly create beautiful afghans as gifts for her fellow residents and for sale in the nursing home gift shop. Bertha felt strongly that there was nothing more comforting than a warm, hand-made afghan, and she loved knowing she was doing what she could to make the best of a bad situation. I also came to admire her self-styled form of efficiency, which was revealed in her own wise words, “If you can’t walk, you’ve got to make every step count.” She was a victor, not a victim.
I took some time that summer to find out how much yarn was needed to make an average afghan. With a few careful questions, a little research and some figuring, I was astonished to discover that Bertha crocheted, on average, about 15 miles of yarn each year. That figure paled in comparison, however, to the gentle, uncomplaining and gracious way in which Bertha chose to deal with her limitations.
Bertha endured painful limitations in order to crochet beautiful and warm afghans that brought shelter and comfort to fellow residents. Through her own faith-filled and gentle witness, Bertha taught me that God’s grace can help us to take positive steps to overcome limitations, and in so doing, provide safety and warmth for others. After all, as Bertha would say, we’ve got to make every step count. And so, step by step, our journey in FAITH continues.
Catholic Hospitals by the numbers
1 in 6 patients in the U.S. is cared for in a Catholic hospital (2014)
Catholic hospitals in the U.S. in 2013: 645 hospitals | More than 5.2 million patients served
How many visits to Catholic hospitals happen in a year? (2013)
Over 19.5 million ER visits
Over 102 million outpatient visits
How many Catholic hospital employees are there? (2013)
521,821 full-time employees
223,800 part-time employees