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Terri Schiavo Family Adviser Helping Iraq Chaplain
BY BARB ERNSTERREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
NEW HOPE, Minn. — Father Timothy
Vakoc, who sustained a brain injury in Iraq that left him paralyzed and unable
to speak, is defying medical prognoses.
He is slowly regaining his physical
and speech capabilities, and from his room at St. Therese nursing home in New
Hope, Minn., he witnesses in silence to hundreds of people who seek his
In an interview with the Register,
his last interview before being attacked in Iraq, Father Timothy Vakoc
described his own chaplaincy as a “ministry of intentional presence.” He was
there for the men and women in Iraq — even if it put him in harm’s way.
Visiting his hospital bed last year,
U.S. Military Archbishop Edwin O’Brien told Father Vakoc, “You are still a
priest. This bed is now your altar and this is where you are now called to
serve as a priest.”
His mother, Phyllis Vakoc, can
attest to that. “Half of the people who come to see him have never known him,”
she said, from her nearby home. “They hear about him and it’s on their mind
until they come see him. Most of them say they get more from him, but they give
Tim so much. He’s like the Pied Piper.”
He has received more than 200,000
e-mails from well-wishers around the world and hundreds more cards and letters,
she added. More are coming in since October, as news spread that he was able to
speak his first words in 2 1/2 years.
“I heard ‘Hi Mom’ in the other room
and I thought I was hearing things,” said the Army chaplain’s mother, recalling
that it wasn’t long after Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical
Council for Justice and Peace, had come to bless and anoint him while he was in
town for a talk. “Now we have to call in the Pope.”
In late January, Father Vakoc was
transported to Benilde St. Margaret Catholic High School in St. Louis Park,
Minn., where he graduated in 1978, to accept a place in the school’s Hall of
Honor. It was only the second time he had been outside since he came home to
Minneapolis in September 2004. With much effort, he told the crowd, “Thank you”
and “God loves you.”
He also started using a touch-screen
communicator that allows him to communicate more than “Yes” or “No” to his
therapists and visitors. He relies on it a lot, said Phyllis Vakoc, who said
she has never given up hope on her son, even when death seemed imminent. Her
husband, Henry, who died of cardiac arrest in January at the age of 83, had
also never given up.
“He always said Tim was going to
make it. And, like my daughter, she quit saying, ‘Why’ and says, ‘When?’” she
said. “It’s very slow, but we can see it. They said he’ll never live, walk or
talk. He lived and he talked. We’re not going to give up until he’s back on
that altar saying Mass.”
Father Vakoc was wounded in May
2004, when a bomb exploded near his vehicle as he was returning from Mass near
Mosul. Shrapnel sprayed his head and left eye, and may still be lodged in his
After battling serious infections,
he was stabilized and transferred that September from Walter Reed Army Hospital
in Washington to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis,
which specializes in traumatic brain injuries.
By December 2005, Father Vakoc could
only move his left hand and wrist, and had little strength in his legs. He also
needed a tracheostomy. Doctors at the VA told the family that nothing more
could be done to restore his physical and mental capabilities, and all
therapies were stopped.
With help from the Franciscan Brothers
of Peace in St. Paul, Minn., who minister at the hospital, the family started
doing their own exercises with Father Vakoc, trying to get him to communicate.
Eventually they sought publicity in the local media, which prompted the VA to
reintroduce his therapies. Not long after, Father Vakoc began to make progress
in “leaps and bounds,” according to Franciscan Brother Paul O’Donnell, who was
also the spiritual director for Terri Schiavo’s family.
“Last May on the anniversary of the
accident, all he could do was squeeze his hands to yes-and-no questions and
raise his slightly paralyzed hand to give a blessing,” said Brother Paul. “Now
he really acknowledges you when you’re there. You can see it in his eyes. For
whatever reason, he loves to talk on the phone. It’s much easier for him to
pick up the phone and say ‘hello’ and start talking,” he added, guessing that
it is due to using a different part of the brain.
Brother Paul said he once told
Father Vakoc that if therapy was too much for him, the family would be okay,
but that seemed to make him fight more.
“He’s very determined, and it takes
a lot of energy,” the Franciscan said. “I’m sure he’s suffering, but I’m sure
he’s offering it up to God. He knows that God is using it.”
Father Vakoc is on a daily regimen
that includes physical therapy, Mass and rest. Each day, a scheduled visitor
comes to work with him on speech or movement, read to him, play games or just
sit quietly and pray. In between, other visitors will come.
“He likes to play ‘thumb wars,’”
said Bonnie Brever, whose family became good friends with him in the early
1990s, while he was the assistant pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church in St.
“I always felt that Tim knew what
was going on. We were all sad when they decided to stop therapy because we all
knew he was there,” she said. “Tim always did things on his own time and it
wasn’t ‘Tim time’ yet. He’s been a witness to the doctors.”
Brever is amazed at the hope and
encouragement he gives to others, and the impact he has had on her own
spiritual life. Visiting him is the highlight of her week.
“Tim has brought so many wonderful
people together from all over the world,” she said. “Many people passing by
will pat him on the hand and say, ‘It’s good to see you.’ I told him, ‘This is
your mission now,’ and he shook his head ‘Yes.’”
Barb Ernster writes
from Fridley, Minnesota.