The Oscars honor achievement in film. The Olympics showcase the world’s best athletes. Almost every month, it seems a different competition or awards ceremony is celebrating the best of the best, from gymnasts to journalists and everything in between.
The Weldon Ambassador Awards, though less well-known than the Pulitzer or the Grammys, have their place on the long list of events that honor individual achievement, but the rewards are far greater than a statuette and a night of recognition. Annual recipients are instead being thanked for their courage, perseverance, and their influence on other people’s lives.
Each year, Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital, which has served a diverse set of clients since 1972 as part of the Sisters of Providence Health System, honors several patients (or relatives of patients) as ‘Weldon Ambassadors,’ recognizing them as people who have shown the bravery and drive to improve their condition following an injury or life-altering illness. Staff members at Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital, which works with patients suffering from spinal cord injuries, amputations, burns, brain injuries, pediatric disabilities, cardiac conditions, stroke, and several other conditions, nominate ambassadors based on their progress physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Ginger Lincoln, activities director at Weldon, said the program has been in place since 1996, and has become as important to the hospital’s staff as it is to the program’s annual recipients.
“People are nominated because of the inspiration they provide to the staff as they recover and make progress, not only at the hospital, but after treatment, in their homes and daily lives,” Lincoln said. “All patients that received awards received them because of the hard work they put into getting better, which in turn motivated staff.”
This year, Lincoln said eight Western Mass. residents were honored as Weldon Ambassadors for an array of accomplishments. She outlined some of the individual stories of each recipient, such as Dale Serra, of East Longmeadow, who battled back form a subarachnoid hemorrhage that left her non-verbal, unable to eat, and physically dependent on others.
Lincoln also referenced Martha Bachleda of Westfield, who was used to caring for patients as a nurse, and Dr. Norman Epstein, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, who also worked hard after a stroke to return to his favorite pasttimes. Bachleda worked hard every day to regain her independence and return to work, Lincoln said, and has since returned to her nursing post; Epstein has returned to much-deserved afternoons on the golf course.
Walter Pease of Ludlow, who suffers from severe progressive sensorineural hearing loss, received a cochlear implant.
Now learning to hear again, Pease donated his digital aids to the center to help other patients. Similarly, Judy Gover of Longmeadow worked to help other patients as a volunteer at Weldon, where she was treated for a stroke, and Pauline Mulak of Chicopee helped her husband, Henry, and other cardiac patients at Weldon feel comfortable by sewing more than 50 cardiac pillows.
The youngest inductee into the Ambassador Class of 2004 was Madison Clewes, 4, of Springfield, who was born with the rare disorder of an unbalanced translocation of the 11th and 12th chromosomes, which makes all physical and cognitive activities very difficult. She worked hard for two years, and is now walking, following directions and communicating with sign language, pictures, and several words.
Each of the stories of the 2004 Weldon Ambassadors are unique, and yet have a common thread binding them: their stories speak for the overall mission of the hospital, according to Sr. Kathleen Sullivan, RSM, senior vice president of missions for the Sisters of Providence Health System.
“The awards are one thing that puts our mission completely in focus,” she said. “You get to attend a wonderful event such as this and it’s as beautiful as it is humbling.”
Sullivan said part of Weldon’s overall philosophy is to serve as a “transforming, healing presence” for patients, but often staff members realize that their patients are serving as just such a presence for them.
“The patients really are the healing presence for us many times. They continue to inspire us with courage they exhibit — in some ways, we receive so much more from them than we give.”
Nominees are chosen from all of Weldon’s programs, which include outpatient, inpatient, and day-patient programs. Award recipients were honored at a ceremony for staff, patients, and family members recently, at which time a new award was added to the program: the Friends of Weldon Award, which was presented for the first time to Sr. Mary Caritas, a Sister of Providence, former president of Mercy Hospital, and the namesake of Mercy’s new cancer center.
“She’s a great supporter and always has been,” Sullivan said. “She is another source of inspiration, like our patients.”