Deacon Don Grossnickle served the Archdiocese of Chicago for many years as a Disability Outreach Coordinator. That job tied into his work as founder of the Gridiron Alliance, an organization that supports high school athletes who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries. The deacon would help these young people adjust to their new situations, and also develop in them spiritual resilience that would help them deal with their futures.
In May 2016, Deacon Don needed some spiritual resilience of his own after he was diagnosed with stage 4 heart failure. So how did this man of God respond to his diagnosis? He recently joined me on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss that topic, along with ways that others with a dire medical diagnosis can develop spiritual resilience.
Here are excerpts from our interview. The full podcast can be found at the end.
Tony Rossi: I mentioned in my intro that you were diagnosed with Stage 4 heart failure in May of 2016. Did you have a history of heart problems, or was this completely unexpected?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: Completely unexpected, Tony. My family has some history, but it was just shortness of breath that brought me to my physician. Now, my world was turned upside down.
TR: What exactly does acute heart failure mean? Because it sounds like something that you can’t live with, but you are obviously and thankfully still alive and kicking!
Deacon Don Grossnickle: Acute cardiomyopathy is my condition. Really, dilated cardiomyopathy. It is a situation where the heart muscle itself has lost its ability to be functional. Instead of having a normal pumping action out of the left ventricle, mine is severely limited. So if we can keep it steady, I can keep alive. If we lose the ability to have it function, I will go on to the next life.
TR: As a deacon in the Archdiocese of Chicago, you’re someone who’s grounded in your faith. But when something like this happens, it’s natural to question God or even get angry at God. What was your spiritual reaction to this news?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: I was certainly shocked. I’m a regular guy that attends to my physician and all of the care that goes with that, so there was certainly a dark cloud that came over me from the get-go. But I look upon my relationship with the Lord as a dance, and there was never a question that the Lord was doing anything to me. So with optimism in the Lord’s help, my optimism is always going to carry the day.
TR: People may not know that for many years you were chairman of the Gridiron Alliance, which you founded. So tell us about that organization and how it might have planted the seeds of spiritual resilience that you yourself need now?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: In 1999, I encountered a boy in our parish that broke his neck playing high school football, and he became quadriplegic, breathing by means of a ventilator. My relationship with Rob Komosa is well-known, and I prayed with him every day for three years as he, like me, adjusted to dire news. From that, we reached out and for 15 years, I became intimately involved with those with catastrophic injuries, and learned so very much about how attitude and a faith life can take us back from what I would call a Humpty Dumpty kind of great fall, to have the ability to respond and transform our life, with the help of the Lord and the Holy Spirit.
I think resilience is a toolbox that you begin practicing in earnest when the chips are down…I think it really comes down to perceiving life as a gift, and each of the boys taught me that every day can be a gift, if that’s what we choose to make it. And like The Christophers, it’s all a matter of lighting the candle and being realistic about the darkness. But being smart enough, wise enough, and gifted enough to move through it by lighting the candle.
TR: Receiving this kind of bad health news, you could have easily fallen into depression and despair if it wasn’t for your faith. How have you overcome any kind of struggles with this whole process yourself that other people can apply to their own lives?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: I think that question taps into what our purpose is in life, and what we can do until it’s time to say goodbye. For me, I’m project-oriented. I have a great ministry trying to raise support for a clinic in Uganda, Africa, for moms and babies with malaria. So I have a focus on using my life for others. That’s what I said at ordination, and I mean it.
I do have clouds of depression that come my way, and I am concerned always about [whether I’ll] have the ability to keep going. But what really has challenged me is there needs to be much more support for people and their spirituality and their resilience in these times. If you’re in a hospital setting, you might have a chaplain. But otherwise, to whom can you turn? I happen to be a good reader, so the work of Norman Cousins in “The Anatomy of Illness,” and “Faith, Hope and Healing” by Bernie Siegel are resources that I’m digesting and sharing. I’m a member of the Heart Failure Clinic here, locally.
TR: Does the church have an outreach to people [who have received] bad health news? Is there something the church is doing, or could be doing, for people like yourself?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: I’m exploring that. I think it’s an untapped need. My pastor and associate from my own personal parish have been extraordinarily wonderful. But officially, I do not know. And this may work into the counselor/psychologist/sociologist kind of world. I’d like to see a ministry like this developed even further.
TR: One of the founding principles that Father James Keller wanted to promote with The Christophers was that if we see a problem in the world, we shouldn’t just complain about it; we should take the initiative to make it better. It sounds like you are taking that initiative.
Deacon Don Grossnickle: Folks tell me that as little as 40 percent of the people who are diagnosed with my kind of condition or cancer or others, reach out. The oppression that comes from bad news really limits their verve, their strength, and they’re kind of lost. So yeah, I feel like that gap needs to be bridged. They probably won’t do it on their own. They probably need folks like me and others to press the opportunities that might be there to lift them up.
TR: I know you have a fairly large family. How have they been able to support you and keep you optimistic and hopeful?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: They’re there for me at every turn. On September 30th, I will have heart surgery to implant a pacemaker or a defibrillator box, and they’re right there with me. They will be physically holding my hand. My wife is there for my dieting, my medications, getting to the heart failure clinic every morning, sending my vitals in telemetry.
When I go to the hospital twice a week for a support group, to learn and to exercise, I am surrounded by support. And [as] a deacon for 28 years, I realize that not everybody has this. I am now seeing first-hand how valuable it is. Before I do go, I feel I really have to be there for others. I’m part of a support group now, but it’s a community – and that’s what Christ has given to us. We have each other.
TR: Sometimes, doctors nowadays are rushed; the patient can be just a collection of symptoms, as opposed to being treated like a well-rounded human being. What should medical professionals keep in mind when dealing with someone like you in your condition and others who get bad news?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: They walk a tightrope, Tony. They need to be soft and yet they need to have tough love. In my case, I’ve lost, as of today, 39 pounds since four months ago. I had to have no salt, no alcohol! So, my physicians are enlightened.
Yesterday, when I saw my cardiologist, we gave a hug to each other on the way out. That’s rare! I happen to be very fortunate. [Those kinds of doctors are] rare, but keep looking. And take charge! Physicians are looking for people like me who do their part. It’s not only a matter of taking your medicine. You have to be proactive, which I am, too. I’m fighting very hard to stay alive, and I wish everyone will find the strength to do so.
TR: Have you been able to keep up your work as a deacon in the archdiocese, helping with Masses and such?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: Oh yes. My pastor at Our Lady of the Wayside here in Arlington Heights has been unbelievably supportive, and my work in the archdiocese is not impaired. If anything, it’s been energized! Now I have a new dimension to offer. I’m close to diaconal retirement after 28 years. At 70 in our diocese, I can retire. [But] so long as the Lord gives me time, I have a new project here. Just like I didn’t ask for that boy to come into my life with his broken neck, it led to a whole different dimension. I now work for the archdiocese outside of parish work. God is showing me the way.
TR: If anybody listening now is facing their own bad news, what would you say are the first steps they should take in order to renew a spirit of hope and optimism in their lives?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: The concept of a spiritual resilience toolbox [is key]. Since the beginning of their lives, [everyone has] been falling down and rising up, so they are on their way already. Keep in mind that the Lord has promised to share our load, so get in touch with Scriptures. Listen to programs such as this. Practice your faith. Reach out to learned individuals. Don’t be afraid to express your vulnerability and certainly tap into the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to give optimism and hope. So I think the tools are out there. It takes practice to bring them [alive].
And I would say to you that I started at Stage 4 [heart failure]. My cardiologist right now is questioning whether or not I was ever at Stage 4. Because now I’m at Stage 1 or 2. I’m vacillating in those kinds of directions. It takes one step at a time to climb the mountain, and everyone can do it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others. Don’t be afraid to cry, don’t be afraid to work through your depression, and to admit it, and to pray. And don’t be a stranger to church. Go, get on your knees. Think about Mother Teresa. Think about all the saints, our traditions. Our Catholic legacy is so very rich. There are so many tools that are there for us.
TR: When people get a bad health diagnosis, the inclination is to take it easy, to rest and recuperate. But from your life, I also get a sense that [your] sense of purpose…is helping you heal. Would you say that developing a sense of purpose in spite of the diagnosis is also an important step?
Deacon Don Grossnickle: Yes, Tony, it’s very important that we work through the question of why did God allow us to be born from the beginning? And while we still have time, how have we accomplished things? Don’t get into a guilt trip that we have not accomplished what we could’ve or should’ve. While there is time, whether we are diagnosed with a serious condition [or not], we have power. God is gifting us to use that power. I look at people who are blind or born deaf and I say, ‘how do they do it?’ They have so much more to teach me. So it’s not a matter of the burden; it is a matter of the journey ahead.
UPDATE Sept. 29, 2016: In the weeks since I recorded this interview with Deacon Don, his health status changed. Here’s the message he posted on Facebook last night: “I am in shock-no surgery. I JUST CAME FROM THE HOSPITAL–A miracle is now a matter of record. God, and my surgeon, Dr. John Onufer (Pictured) has saved my life along with my cardiologist and team Dr. Gilbert Sita, and family and friends. My heart disease is under arrest and has reversed from Level IV to Level I. This case is extremely rare, Dr. Onufer sent me for two consults that prove the mysterious reversal.The NCH Heart Failure Clinic, NCH Cardiac Rehab and all created the antidote to the poison killing my heart and congesting and drowning my lungs. Your prayers are so effective. I am so happy and filled with thanksgiving,-I have much work to do in deacon work: praying and supporting and loving. I am giving a seminar at the clinic to fellow patients next Wed, and now, I have something with which to encourage them. Blessings all and THANK YOU.”
(To listen to my full interview with Deacon Don Grossnickle, click on the podcast link):
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