Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
“So, what do you do for a living?”
It’s a common opening question when folks are getting acquainted.
When Mark Notter tells people that he’s a Chaplain for Heart to Heart Hospice in Danville, however, he often gets the following response: “Oh, wow. I could never do that job. I’d be a mess.”
“I imagine a lot of people think my days are filled with nothing but sorrow, grief, and tears, but that’s not the case,” says Notter, noting that when he meets with patients, the object is to not necessarily adopt how a patient is reacting to their situation emotionally but rather to empathize and identify with their feelings. “It’s truly entering into that emotion with them and by doing so offering comfort and peace in that moment.”
The way hospice works is that when a patient has a prognosis of six months or less, they qualify for hospice care. At that point, they are assigned a care team, which includes a social worker, a case manager, and, if they choose to accept it, a chaplain.
Notter, who visits patients all over Hendricks County, has a specific role to play: to bring the patient comfort, peace, encouragement, and even joy from a spiritual perspective. He does this through prayer, hand-holding, and asking questions. The biggest part of his job, however, involves listening.
“Really I find that what I do more than anything else is act as a Christian counselor,” says Notter, who gets the ball rolling by initially asking the patient to describe their journey thus far from a physical standpoint. This enables him to find out how they got sick, what’s ailing them, and how long they’ve been battling it. Many fall prey to Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other insidious diseases. He asks very intentional questions that paint a vivid story of the patient’s life.
“I’ll ask about a significant vacation they took or something they were known for,” Notter says. “Maybe I learn that this person was the matriarch of the family — the glue that held everything together. Or maybe they were responsible for certain Christmas traditions that are sentimentally invaluable. Such stories are limitless.”
Through these interactions, Notter creates genuine relational connections with his patients and their families.
“At the end of the day, they won’t remember what I did for them or what I said to them,” Notter says. “But what they will never forget is how I made them feel.”
As people approach the end of life, many want to know what happens after they pass from this world. Others are interested in renewing a faith that has grown dormant through the years. With death being imminent, they are seeking some assurance of God’s presence.
“In all of these cases, my role is to provide them with answers from a Christian perspective,” Notter says. “Again, all of that is done through the power of listening and empathetically loving that person.”
Early on in the journey, Notter always asks, “How can I pray for you, specifically?”
“I want to know how I can lift them up in a tangible way to address the needs that they have,” says Notter, noting that not a lot of people turn down prayer. Some struggle with saying their goodbyes. Others grapple with loneliness. Some are concerned about being a burden to their families. Others flounder because they have lost their sense of independence or identity.
“Those are hardships to turn around mentally, emotionally, and spiritually,” Notter says. “The key is being in tune with people, feeling out where they are emotionally, and meeting them where they are so that you can eventually take them to where they need to be.”
Notter helps patients and their families understand that as difficult as it is to walk this emotional path, it’s an opportunity for them to experience genuine love for one another.
“It’s oftentimes through suffering that God develops the most character within all of us,” Notter says. “Sometimes that’s for the person who is facing the end of life and often it’s for the people who are loving their family members to the end of life.”
Each morning Notter starts his day with the same simple prayer.
“I say, ‘God, I am your servant. May your will be done in my life today,’” says Notter, who has a wife Shelley and three daughters: Hope (17), Sophia (15), and Cadee (13).
Though Notter occasionally comes home emotionally drained after a difficult day, he rarely struggles with compassion fatigue.
“Thankfully, God has graced me with the ability to be present in the moment with all of my patients but then be able to put that emotion in its proper place after work so that I may engage with my own family on nights and weekends,” Notter says.
Heart to Heart Hospice has a staff of three full-time and one part-time chaplains, all of whom lean on one another.
“We are sounding boards for one another. We share our highs and lows, our laughter and disappointments,” Notter says. “It’s a great team. At times this job is challenging, but it’s exceptionally rewarding.”