• Kim Piekos

Spirit of Gratitude Propels Senior Resident to Encourage Others

By Kim Piekos

Some people spend their lives dedicated to others. Lake Forest’s Pat Handley is one of them.

A senior citizen, she juggles being a staff chaplain at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital with shepherding a small congregation at First Congregational Church of Genoa City near Lake Geneva, Wis.

"Living in gratitude makes life enjoyable and bearable," says Pat Handley, a staff chaplain at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital and a pastor at a Wisconsin church.

Originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, Handley’s second chapter of life has been an unexpected and happy journey for her. Initially a nurse in New York City, she raised her children in New Canaan, Ct. before beginning work on her master’s degree in nursing from New York University. “Life was really interesting and wonderful,” she recalls.

Yet a little voice kept nagging her.

“I found myself drawn to understanding what a relationship with God might look like,” she recalls.

Interested in combining her experience in medicine with her budding interest in pastoral care, she earned her Master of Divinity degree from Yale University at age 48. Since then, she has served at churches in Weathersfield, Ct., Asheville, N. C. and Oak Brook, Ill. But it was her daughter, Garrett Dee, and her son-in-law, Terry, who brought her to Chicago years ago. Blessed with two sets of twins in two years, Handley joined their family as an extra set of hands. “I felt it was a call, so I came,” she says. “We had four highchairs in a row!”

Once the grandchildren were more independent, Handley served as a pastor in a second-home community in North Carolina for five years, and then returned to Lake Forest in 2017 to be near family. That year, she joined Lake Forest Hospital’s Spiritual Care department as a part-time chaplain. Chaplains are available to patients and their families as they experience uncertainty related to their hospitalization, end-of-life decision-making, development of healthcare power of attorneys, goals of care and the death of a family member while in the hospital. Chaplains also talk with patients about their hopes, dreams and preferences for the end of their life. “Those conversations don’t happen in one visit,” says Jennifer Prescia, Director of Operations, Case Management, Spiritual Care and Orders Management at the hospital. “It takes building a relationship and then opening up those doors to be able to ask some of those open-ended questions.”

A year ago, “Pastor Pat” was also hired as pastor of the Genoa City church.

“I fell in love with their heart for service and their desire to be a meeting place for the whole community,” she explains. Preaching every week, “I always have a sermon rolling around in my head,” she laughs.

Handley’s grandchildren often ask her if she is sad or depressed given the nature of her work.

“I tell them I’m tired, but what I do is life-giving to me,” she reflects. “Patients will tell me as I’m leaving their room, ‘That was just what I needed,’ so I usually leave feeling fulfilled, renewed and refreshed.

“To walk into the room of someone you’ve never met before -- someone in a bed and clothing that are not their own -- to be given entree into their lives because of their circumstance or need, in a quick period of time you can become very intimate with strangers,” she says. When Handley learned of the recent Highland Park shooting, she dropped everything and went to Lake Forest Hospital to minister to shooting victims, their families and staff without being asked to do so. “That’s just what Pat does,” Prescia says.

Handley believes having a grateful heart is important.

“Life is hard. I don’t deny that, and I don’t run from it,” she explains. “But living in gratitude makes life enjoyable and bearable. I’m grateful to be alive!”

What breaks her heart the most is “the profound sadness I feel when I come across someone who has no hope in anything,” she admits. “I feel like there is so much more for them and I wish they knew that.”

Handley – who is a member of the Lake Forest Caucus -- is a huge fan of Lake Forest. “I love barefoot lakefront living, the beauty here and the residents’ awareness that this is a treasure that we all care for well together,” she says.