Comforting the sick or dying or bereaved can be a heavy responsibility, even for a trained hospital chaplain. But Bruce Henderson swears that making the rounds at Carson Tahoe over the last several decades made him “light as a feather.”
“When it’s viewed as a chore, it doesn’t take long to get over that because you get emotional feedback, even when it’s not in words, and you know you’re at the place you’re supposed to be,” Henderson said.
On June 28, on the third floor of the Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center, colleagues and family gathered to pay tribute to Henderson. The 76-year-old minister of Airport Road Church of Christ retired this year as a volunteer chaplain at Carson Tahoe after 37 years of official ministry, though he was walking the halls of the old hospital as far back as 1974. Henderson still serves as minister of the Airport Road church that will celebrate 50 years come October, but his work for the nondenominational, interfaith chaplain ministry at the hospital has come to an end.
Kitty McKay, administrator of community and patient experience at Carson Tahoe, was among many at the celebration wiping away tears. She said Carson Tahoe has been a community hospital since 1949.
“And if there was one human being in the entire history of Carson Tahoe who embodies that, it would be this person right here,” she said of Henderson. “Thirty-seven years. He’s been here for all of us. And you know, when you sign up to be a chaplain at a hospital, you’re signing up to be there for people at the crossroads of life and death, at the time when people are completely lost and desperate and seeking comfort. I don’t think there is a greater calling, and I don’t think there is a greater human who ever answered that calling.”
In an interview after the celebration, Henderson told the Appeal about suffering a stroke last year.
“I had to stop taking calls a little over a year ago when I had a stroke in my right eye, and I couldn’t drive anymore,” he said. “The difficult thing was I was losing my equilibrium because of the eye, and I quite often kneeled in prayer with patients, and when I’d get up and start walking, I’d have to grab the door jamb. So that was hard and mainly why I ended up leaving in January.”
In the same candid manner Henderson used to reveal his own health issues, he discussed the difficulty chaplains face dealing with death on a regular basis.
“Being called into the hospital and then sometimes a patient dies while you’re there, and sometimes being called in after a death… those are difficult,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s very confirming because all the cases I can think of, people have been so appreciative that there’s somebody there.”
Trying to comfort those who have lost a child is even more challenging, the way Henderson described it. He said he never brought any agenda to the work, just the capacity to care and comfort.
“Families are very appreciative that there is somebody who cares and reminds them that God is still present,” he said.
He said people can have experiences or impressions of ministry “of a very pushy, condemning sort.”
“And that is not at all what all of us have ever been about,” he said. “Often times, well, always, I think, when a person requests a prayer or accepts a prayer, they are the most appreciative.”
Henderson emphasized that “just showing up is important.” It’s a lesson not lost on the five volunteer chaplains carrying the hospital ministry into the future.
“Patients remember Bruce,” said Don Wingfield, who joined the chaplains in January. “That means he’s had a huge impact on their lives.”
Wingfield said he’s been trying to fill Henderson’s shoes since he came aboard this year, “but that’s not going to happen.”
“They’re big shoes,” he said.
Fellow chaplain Ben Fleming started working with Henderson in the 1990s and considers him a mentor. He said Henderson epitomizes faithfulness in his devotion to patients, family members, staff and in answering “thousands of emergency evening calls and weekend calls.”
“If you want to know how to care for someone, you just go into a room and you watch Bruce Henderson as he comes to a patient’s bedside and how he cares for them, what he says and what he does not say to a patient,” Fleming said. “Bruce never had a personal agenda at all. His personal agenda was caring for another.”
Henderson also shed tears with family and friends as he received a commemorative plaque from hospital staff.
“It has been a great blessing, to me, all of these years,” he said.
For information about Carson Tahoe’s chaplain service, visit https://www.carsontahoe.com/pastoral-care.html.