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Hospice chaplain preaches hope, even in full PPE amid pandemic
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EAU CLAIRE — Karl Schearer was on his way to comfort hospice patients at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With his vehicle packed with personal protective equipment and his target audience isolated from family and friends because of coronavirus safety protocols, the St. Croix Hospice chaplain was following his usual routine in highly unusual times.

Schearer’s peaceful December drive was shattered when, while navigating a construction zone in rural Jackson County, he saw a massive oak tree falling right in front of the SUV that also serves as his mobile office. The tree, which sounded like thunder when it struck the ground, missed his vehicle by only a few feet.

After the initial shock of the near-death experience, Schearer reported feeling a sense of calm come over him.

“It was as if God was sitting on the seat next to me and saying, ‘Karl, I’m right here with you and I’m taking care of you,’ “ said Schearer, who seeks to provide similar reassurance to patients nearing the end of their lives.

Later that day, after donning full PPE at a regional senior living facility, he told a group of patients the story, attempting to empathize with them as they navigated their own journey at an extremely difficult time. Schearer said he could only imagine all the roadblocks that had fallen in front of them and all the emotions they must be feeling.

“But I’m here to tell you that no matter what happens to you, God is right there with you,” Schearer recalled telling the patients.

Within weeks, Schearer learned that more than 20 of those patients died from COVID-19.

“I had no idea that COVID was active there at the time,” said Schearer, 47, of rural Osseo. “But after that it was like somebody lit a match and people started dying.

“What struck me is the people seemed fine and then a couple days later they were gone. It was heartbreaking. That’s when the power of COVID really hit me.”

It also made him realize the potential importance of his role, as he knows his comments were among the last comforting words some of those patients heard.

“I think I brought some of them peace,” said Schearer, an ex-cop and former banker.

Melissa Leis, manager of clinical services for the Eau Claire branch of St. Croix Hospice, said Schearer played a pivotal role for the organization’s interdisciplinary group during the pandemic.

“He was able to be innovative in his offerings of spiritual and emotional support to our patients, families, facilities and staff throughout the pandemic — when everyone needed human connection the most,” Leis said. “He offered socially distanced in-person visits, window visits, Google Duo visits with assistance of our nurses and aides, distribution of prayer bears and outdoor church services. He consistently offered support to families in addition to patients when they were unable to connect face-to-face.”

Safety measures

Recognizing that it was more difficult than usual to forge a relationship with patients while wearing PPE, Schearer made it a practice to show them a grinning photo of himself and ensure them he was smiling like that under his mask.

Schearer’s typical PPE at the height of the pandemic included an N95 mask under a face shield, a gown made of plastic material and vinyl gloves. He would change the gear and sanitize his hands multiple times a day as he drove among facilities in the territory he serves in Eau Claire, Dunn, Jackson, Trempealeau and Pepin counties.

Acknowledging it sometimes was unsettling to be in a room with someone who had tested positive for the virus, Schearer stressed that he was thankful to St. Croix Hospice for administering twice-weekly COVID tests of staff and for providing enough PPE to employees despite nationwide shortages. Those measures gave Schearer, who has since been vaccinated, the confidence to interact with patients at care facilities during the day and still return home to his family at night.

“Safety was on my mind, but it goes back to the value of today,” he said. “If I have an opportunity to visit you and comfort you as you’re dying, that is my calling. That’s what I do.”

Unusual career path

That wasn’t always the case, as Schearer is relatively new to the ministry and admitted he was turned off by religion as a young man.

Yet he always liked helping people, which is what initially drew him to law enforcement after going on a ride along with an officer. Working as a police officer in the Twin Cities for three years taught him to be aware of how other people see things as he intervened in stressful situations. He also learned that he could help people deal with problems but couldn’t always fix them — a lesson that has served him well as a chaplain.

After shifting to a job as a banker in the Twin Cities, he used his ability to make personal connections with people from all walks of life to earn a promotion to a branch manager position in Eau Claire. He worked in banking for more than a dozen years before deciding he needed something more — a change spurred in part by sponsoring a table at a Hope Gospel Ministry banquet and being moved by the speaker.

“Some people have a midlife crisis involving something like buying a Corvette,” Schearer said with a chuckle. “My midlife crisis was being called into the ministry.”

When his employer announced that his bank branch was closing a few days after what he acknowledged sounds like a bizarre coincidence of having three customers on the same day tell him out of the blue that he’d make a good pastor, Schearer decided to follow his heart to a new career path. He attended seminary and accepted a position as assistant pastor at Eau Claire Wesleyan Church.

After a former pastoral colleague invited him to consider hospice work, Schearer made the jump to St. Croix Hospice in June 2019.

Of course, he had no idea when he accepted the position that the world would be turned upside down by a pandemic nine months later. Still, Schearer approached the lockdowns separating patients from their loves ones as a challenge.

Positive energy

Like many health care providers, he used his access to help fill the void and often to hold a phone so patients could hear the voices of family members huddled outside their windows.

“To actually be in that deep with people going through death is very unique. It’s not for everybody,” he said. “It makes it clear that this moment I’m talking to you is valuable because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

“The rest of us we often get so busy we forget about the value of right now.”

It’s a message he repeated Thursday morning when leading a chapel session at Care Partners Assisted Living on Eau Claire’s west side, telling about two dozen assembled residents “today is a very special day” before leading them in a rendition of the song “This is the Day that the Lord has Made.”

St. Croix Hospice admissions nurse Clare Luepke smiled as she watched the residents’ full-throated response to the enthusiasm of Schearer, who often placed a hand gently on the shoulders of patients as he spoke to them.

“Karl is able to make anything positive,” Luepke said. “He has a way with patients that I don’t even know how he does it. He’s made connections not just with our patients, but with patients throughout the entire facility.”

Megan Podoll, director of the Care Partners facility, agreed, noting that Schearer knows everyone in the building by name and “lights up a room when he walks into it.”

That positive energy helped lift the spirits of patients and staff during the darkest days of the pandemic, Podoll said.

For his part, Schearer sees his mission as helping people find what they’re looking for, which in the case of hospice patients is often a sense of peace as they face the great unknown.

“I love helping people discover that peace,” he said.

Drinking deep from the summer of yesteryear
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In 1928, on a June morning much like today, 12-year-old Doris Mitchell was roused from sleep in her Randall Park home by shafts of sunlight warming her face. The young girl sprang up, anxious to experience the dawning of another perfect summer day in Eau Claire. Though, in fact, the day had already begun without her.

On the corner of Broadway and Fourth, the Mitchell family home was an epicenter of activity: a bustling thoroughfare consisting of Doris’s father, mother, grandmother, siblings, and an endless stream of neighborhood friends, each of whom announced their presence by the slam of the screen door.

Meanwhile, outside, a parade of people began their daily duties. First came the iceman, who clucked his horse-drawn wagon to a halt before chipping off a 50-pound chunk sawed free from Half Moon Lake the previous winter.

Next came the milkman, who made his jangling jaunt from one house to another, retrieving the empty bottles from the porches and replacing them with the freshest milk this side of heaven.

Some days an electrician was called, or a plumber, though neither was half so exciting as the neighborhood rag-and-junkman, who creaked his busted wagon along the sun-dappled streets hollering “Rags, paper, iron! — living proof of the dictum of making one man’s trash another’s treasure.

Shortly after breakfast, Doris and a dozen or so children hustled from their homes, but how would they pass the time? Ball and jacks? Jump rope? Roller skates? Storytelling on the curb? Or perhaps a game of cards beneath the trees?

If they’d begged enough pins out of their mothers, Doris and her friends might cross the pins into an X formation, then place them on the trolley tracks and wait for the crushing wheels sure to transform them into a pair of miniature scissors. Though they never had to wait long; from dawn until midnight, the friendly ding of the trolley cars was heard every 15 minutes.

Before Dr. Mitchell headed off to his house calls, he might enlist Doris and her more industrious friends to clear his yard of dandelions. The going rate was a dime for a hundred plucked dandelions — who could resist such high pay?

Once all the dandelions had been cleared, and the other neighborhood games had lost their luster, Doris and her friends, equipped with matches and metal canteens, would spend their days in search of small-town adventures: trekking up State Street Hill toward the Indian mounds, or braving the railroad bridge near the town of Brunswick, or exploring the island in the Chippewa River.

Upon their return, they might celebrate with a trip to Adam’s Drug Store on the 500 block of Water Street (later a health store), where the soda fountain stretched on forever. For a nickel (just half the earnings of a day’s dandelion picking), Doris and the others could treat themselves to one of Mr. Adam’s famous ginger mint juleps. Before heading home, the children might pay a visit to Mr. Evans’ blacksmith shop just two blocks away (later Kerm’s Super Foods’ parking lot), where the man ran the forge like Hephaestus.

But Doris and the other children’s real education occurred while walking between the drug store and the blacksmith. No, not Mrs. Hoffman’s Hat Shop or Uecke’s Dairy, but Sandy Dean’s funeral parlor, which, despite its windows filled with ferns, could not hide the specter of death which remained just beyond the children’s periphery.

“The summer of 1928 would be the last time my Westside neighborhood gang would play together as a group in the homes and yards around Randall Park,” wrote Doris Arnold (as she was later known) in her 1987 book, “Remembering Eau Claire.”

Doris and the others had simply outgrown their childhood, and had no choice but to pass the torch to the neighborhood’s younger children. The card games would continue beneath the trees, and the jump ropes still swung high, but things were different now. Not only for Doris, but for the entire town.

“Motor cars and trucks reduced the number of horse-drawn buggies and wagons,” Doris wrote. “Buses would soon replace trolleys.”

And then one day refrigeration units replaced iceboxes, and the iceman vanished without a trace. How long, the children wondered, until the milkman, too, disappeared?

There was no stopping it, nor did anyone want to.

“We were caught in transition,” Doris explained, “and it felt good.”

Such idyllic scenes seemed pulled directly from Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine.” Not only do both books provide nostalgia-filled odes to the summer of 1928, but they’re both set in small Midwestern towns. More astonishing, they feature scenes that echo one another with eerie detail: from the fond farewell of the trolley cars, to the appearance of the rag-and-junkman, to the annual summer harvest of hand-plucked dandelions.

In Bradbury’s book, the title serves as a metaphor — dandelion wine is the narrator’s best crack at holding tight to a fast-fading summer. It is the 12-year-old’s attempt to savor every last gulp of his childhood before the bottle runs dry.

Doris Arnold’s “Remembering Eau Claire” performs much the same function, though in its own unique vintage. Throughout its 95, spiral-bound pages, Doris, who died in 2010, offers readers of future generations a sepia-toned version of Eau Claire that’s all the sweeter since we’ll never know that place again.

Walking Randall Park today, you will not see any children playing ball and jacks. What you will see is Doris’s childhood home standing stately on the corner. While the park’s statue of Adin Randall draws the most attention, Doris’s former home is its own monument: paying homage to the young girl who observed her world, then wrote it down, and in doing so, paved the way for one last journey to yesteryear.

Former rivals Walker, Doyle join together to promote vaccine

MADISON (AP) — Former Wisconsin governors Jim Doyle and Scott Walker don’t agree on much, but they are joining together to call for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine in a new public service television advertisement.

The spot released Thursday, produced by UW Health, features the Republican Walker placing a Zoom call to Doyle, a Democrat. Both are in their personal offices and never appear in the same room together.

“I’m just ready to be done with this pandemic,” Walker says.

Doyle responds, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“That’s what I thought,” Walker says. “Here’s another thought: Let’s do a commercial together — reminding people in Wisconsin how important it is to be vaccinated.”

Doyle quips, “That may be the best idea you’ve ever had.”

Both Walker and Doyle have been vaccinated.

Both governors said in statements that they hoped the ad would encourage everyone to get vaccinated to enjoy the summer and return to a more normal life.

“It just makes sense,” Walker said Thursday on Twitter in response to a post about the ad.

The spot comes as the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is considering bills that would prohibit business owners, university leaders and government officials from requiring the COVID-19 vaccination or treating unvaccinated people differently.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is all but certain to veto the bills should they pass. He has already vetoed a bill that would have prohibited health officials from mandating the vaccine.

As of Wednesday, nearly 49% of Wisconsin residents have received at least one dose of vaccine and just over 43% are fully vaccinated.

This isn’t the first time that political rivals have appeared together in a public service announcement during the pandemic. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan appeared in a spot last year encouraging people to wear masks.

And a third former governor, currently interim UW System President Tommy Thompson, wielded a sledge hammer in a series of videos last year urging people to “smash COVID.”