The winners of the American Cancer Society’s prestigious leadership award this month included a surgeon, a health care CEO, an oncology nurse — and a Minnesota chaplain.
Dale Swan is a hospice chaplain best known for visiting hundreds of terminally ill patients. He provides not just spiritual support but everything from birthday parties to mock college graduations to veterans’ events.
“He has a knack for celebrating the lives of people,” even as they are nearing death, said Anne O’Keefe, a hospital systems manager at Fairview Health Services, where Swan has worked for 20 years.
Last week, for example, Swan arranged a patriotic service at a Roseville senior home, making sure veterans received a salute from an officer, a recognition pin and cookies. He recalled it was a resident’s 99th birthday, and showed up at his door with a giant balloon and a teasing “HOW old are you today??”
The American Cancer Society doesn’t give a lot of awards to chaplains, said Caira Turner, senior coordinator of volunteer engagement for the society. They tend to go the medical professionals working on cancer cures. But Swan has gone above and beyond the usual roles of a spiritual caregiver.
“The way he prepares people for death is amazing,” O’Keefe said. “He’s always searching for innovative and collaborative ways.”
Swan, 63, never set out to win national recognition, in this case the Lane Adams Quality of Life Award. He spent his career as an on-the-road hospice chaplain, logging 25,000 miles a year across the northwest metro. His car trunk is a mobile office stocked with prayers, spiritual literature, birthday cards, his family photos as conversation starters, and a fishing pole — just in case he gets a break.
Veteran’s Day is particularly important. Swan has organized dozens of tender services in senior centers over the years — and O’Keefe said he created a special program for women veterans that sparked interest from other chaplains.
“Veterans hold a special place in my heart,” Swan said. “My brother is a retired colonel. My dad served in World War II. Both grandfathers were injured in World War I. I let them know that whatever the war, you made a difference.”
Spiritual direction takes many forms, he said. Sometimes, terminally ill patients find peace by closing key chapters in their lives. He recalls a woman who was just months from college graduation when diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“I called the college, and asked if they would give her an honorary degree,” Swan said. “We planned a graduation service. We had a diploma … a cap and gown. A florist donated flowers.
“If I help someone in the dying process on that journey, I would receive far more than anything I give up,” he said.
O’Keefe, who nominated Swan, said she was impressed at the scope of his work. He created the Metro Hospice Chaplains Group years ago as a way for hospice chaplains to support one another through emotionally wrenching work.
He’s developed materials and training for and volunteers on topics such as spiritual care, grief and compassion fatigue.
Over the past week, a Fairview photographer has been shadowing Swan at work and collecting photos taken at his Circle Pines home, the Minnesota State Fair and other haunts to be shown at the awards program in Dallas next year.
Swan is a bit embarrassed by the attention. “I’m no Mother Teresa. To be able to help people is an honor.”