GLENWOOD, Iowa — When seminary student Andrew Kinstetter was assigned to work with people with profound brain injuries, he expected to sit in sterile rooms, talking to people who were unable to respond.
“That scared me because I like to relate to people, because I didn't know how to relate to people who couldn't actually talk to me,” said Kinstetter, 24.
What he did not expect to find was that many of the patients would be able to convey their feelings, even though they could not speak. And that those patients would teach him an important lesson about his own life.
Kinstetter, a student at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, was one of a handful of Catholic seminarians who spent about six hours per week this summer at On With Life in Glenwood. The 32-bed nonprofit center cares for people with profound brain injuries.
The seminarians were part of a larger summer program at Creighton University called the Institute of Priestly Formation. The program, which wrapped up last week, drew 169 seminarians from across the United States.
In addition to graduate-level classes in topics such as prayer, spirituality and liturgy, students were assigned to work outside the classroom. Some went to hospitals. Some went to nursing homes. Six went to On With Life.
“It's really an opportunity for us to be in the field, to learn how to minister, learn how to share Christ with others,” said Matt Grossi, 27, a student at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass.
At the beginning, the seminarians were nervous.
“We were all terrified at some level,” Kinstetter said.
On With Life in Glenwood provides long-term residential care to youths and young adults who have suffered severe brain injuries and need closer medical supervision than would be offered at a traditional nursing home. It is located on the Glenwood Resource Center campus. There is also a facility in Ankeny, Iowa.
“We had been told it was a very demanding (experience), and we'd be out of our comfort zone,” said Bob Kilner, 25, a student at Blessed John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Properly interacting with someone who has profound brain injuries is not something that can be learned in a classroom, said Jeni Durfey, a recreational therapist at On With Life.
“They really have to learn hands-on how to minister to people with disabilities,” Durfey said. The future priests “are not just going to go to their home parish and everyone will be like you and I.”
By watching the nursing staff, the seminarians learned that they could communicate with the disabled in different ways, sometimes with a grasp of the hand or a pat on the back.
They learned that even those in comas can often hear what is going on around them.
“Some of them have been in comas for years,” Grossi said. “But we treat everyone as if they can hear us.”
They learned that even though someone may be unable to move or speak, the person may still be able to understand what is going on around them.
While playing video games or praying with the patients, the seminarians learned that the raise of an eyebrow could be an answer to a question, that the slow lifting of the right leg could mean “yes” for a particular patient. Or a slowly spreading smile could mean joy.
“You watch someone ... their eyes can convey a gratitude that you are there,” Kinstetter said.
Grossi remembers a party where two patients were sitting in wheelchairs next to each other. One was speaking, blurting out random statements as he often did (how old are you, 100?) and the resident next to him was laughing.
“Even in their challenges, they are still people, and they still need that human connection,” Grossi said.
That, the seminarians said, was one of the enduring lessons of their time at the center. Human relationships are important to all people. What the patients wanted most was a connection with others.
“Simply being with them is enough to let them know they are appreciated,” Kinstetter said. “In the end, they want the same things we all do — to love and to be loved.”
One afternoon, the seminarians were entertaining the residents, singing songs from Disney animated films. Kinstetter belted out “You'll Be in My Heart” from “Tarzan” and other tunes, and one of the female residents was delighted.
Instead of feeling reserved, he found himself able to have fun with the songs and convey his natural goofiness.
“This is a place where I find I can be authentically me,” he said. “They are showing me I don't have to put on a mask to be appreciated.”