Feb. 1, 2013: Sister faces disease with ‘heroic courage,’ by Sister Anna Marie Broxterman

February 1, 2013 by

The challenge for those of us writing Year of Peace columns in 2013 is to focus on what we’re calling “unsung heroes of peace” — individuals who stand up and show their soul!

When I think about what that means, I recall a sign on the door of Sister Leah Smith’s room at Mount Joseph Senior Village.

“I cannot speak but I can wave Hi,” it reads, to let all who enter know this is a woman of spirit.

Many people in Concordia know Sister Leah from her 28 years working in the physical therapy department at Cloud County Health Center.

Department head Marci Rogers told me that while Leah’s official role before her retirement in 2009 was as secretary, what she was really known for was her smile and her ability to make others smile. She also had a laugh that came across as an inner chuckle reflecting a taste of humor.

Leah tried to remain anonymous in her kind gestures to other hospital personnel, through an unexpected casual note, an apropos cartoon, a piece of chocolate candy or some small creative art piece. And while there was never a signature on the surprise arrival, everyone knew that Leah had been there.

Sister Leah Smith, center, joined Sisters Susan Stoeber, Jackie Kircher and Cecilia Green each year making the hundreds of items available at the Motherhouse Annual Crafts Sale the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Marci spoke also of Leah’s attentiveness to children who came into the department.  Leah was also attentive to children of co-workers and made “travel kits” for them when they were going on vacation.

Many of Leah’s former co-workers know about the challenge she faces today, but I wanted to share the story with those who don’t.

In October 2010, Leah’s friends first began to notice that something was wrong. What appeared first as faltering speech was quickly diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or what is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is an incurable and progressive disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

For Leah, the progression led first to not being able to speak. Then she was unable to swallow, and a feeding tube was required. Ultimately she needed the care that Mount Joseph offers. Initially she was able to get around in a motorized wheel chair, but now, because of a loss of balance, she can no longer ride. She does retain the capacity to write notes, though this too is beginning to falter.

None of that means, though, that she has been forgotten by those who admire her.

During my recent visit to her room, she had music playing — music created for her as a gift from Marci Rogers’ children, who had been recipients years ago of Sister Leah’s “travel kits.”

Then there’s this tribute, written not too long ago by someone who worked with her in the PT department:

“After her battle with ALS had led to her being hospitalized, I was amazed at her ability to smile so big and so beautifully… Seeing the hope in her smile made us feel like everything was going to be all right. Is this the testament of her faith in the Lord or just the product of heroic courage in the face of a deadly disease?”

“Heroic courage” is an apt description of my witness of Leah’s on-going debilitating effects from ALS.

A particular quality of “heroes” is the ability to make a difference wherever they are; their personalities are magnetic and they often possess a distinctive creativity that attracts others. When I’m in the presence of a “hero” like that, I even say a little prayer that those qualities might rub off on me.

So one day when I was with Leah, I attempted the “rub-off” effect!

I was with her at Mount Joseph, and we were bantering back and forth — she with the written notes and I with spoken words.

“Leah, I am sorry you are not able to speak; because I would like to take a course from you on the development of a playful personality,” I said to her. And without missing a beat she picked up her pad and wrote, “Every day for the next four years.” Well, at least she thought I was teachable!

Of course, there are some not so good days. But the spark in Leah’s eyes remains steady, bright and attentive. Leah teaches with her life the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God!”


— Sister Anna Marie Broxterman is a member of the Concordia Year of Peace Committee and serves congregational Leadership Council of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia.









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