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.