Chaplain outfits wheelchair to take hospice patients outdoors

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. — Alvin Butcher put on his finest suit last Monday.

There were a couple of reasons for that.

First, the 90-year-old World War II veteran was slated for an outing, away from his routine inside a Mission Viejo, Calif., hospice and out to the outside world.

Second, the man who would be taking Butcher out, the hospice’s 65-year-old chaplain, Roger Rustad, had promised that this outing would be special. Butcher, Rustad said, would be going for a ride.

So when Rustad walked in and saw Butcher sitting at attention in his best suit, both men grinned.

“I expected him to be dressed warmly,” Rustad said. “But he insisted on wearing his suit.”

Rustad and two caregivers helped get Butcher out of his regular wheelchair, upright. Next, they guided him in a walker to get down the driveway.

“I can do it,” Butcher cried out happily as he moved forward. “I can do it!”

Finally, they came upon an interesting looking rig, another wheelchair that wasn’t at all like the one Butcher had just exited.

The seat was big and comfy. It played music. It was built for two.

It had a motor.

Rustad secured Butcher into his seat and climbed in next to him. Butcher beamed.

Rustad soon started to maneuver the vehicle, slowly at first, avoiding bumps. But when they got on the street, he put it into fifth gear.

That’s when Rustad and Butcher took off, down the road, in a wheelchair built for two.

“Wow,” Butcher said. “Wow!”

Idea man

The rig is something Rustad dreamed up.

Rustad, of Laguna Hills, works as a chaplain at Sonoran Winds Hospice. As part of that work he sometimes partners with Oscar Liort, founder of American Outreach Foundation, to procure wheelchairs for the use of aging military veterans. And as part of that effort, Rustad recently came across a $13,000 motorized wheelchair designed to hold a 700-pound man.

The chair, he learned, was barely used; Liort kept asking Rustad if he had any use for the chair.

Finally, he realized that he did.

The idea hit him in November, as he was talking with a hospice patient who told Rustad she had a wish-to get outside once more before she died.

That’s when he decided to transform the 42-inch wheelchair into a vehicle that could transport dying patients, for a potential final trip through the outdoors.

He and Liort went to work.

They made the already wide seat extra comfy. They attached a pole for I.V. bags. And a rack for an oxygen tank. And a jukebox, filled with songs like the “Marines’ Hymn” and “Silent Night” and “Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” The chair even has a camera boom so a rider to view a loved one or FaceTime others while on the road.

After more than 100 hours and $2,000 of his own money, Rustad had it up and running.

Rustad, who also sees more than 100 patients from Los Angeles to Riverside counties, debuted the chair at a place called The Lakes in Banning, right around Christmas.

“The patients there loved it,” Rustad said.

“We added a Radio Flyer wagon and went room-to-room, delivering presents.”

Last new friend

Rustad has cared for dying people for the last 40 years.

Being a chaplain, he said, is more than a job.

“My dad always said, ‘The real test to see if you’re truly called to be a pastor or chaplain is to see if there is anything else you can do in life besides being a pastor or chaplain. If you can do that with a clear conscience, then do it.’

“I couldn’t.”

Rustad grew up in Amarillo, Texas, the son of a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. After studying theology and education and architecture, Rustad started a career designing and building churches throughout the Southwest. He established congregations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Arizona, California.

Rustad, his wife and three children eventually settled in Laguna Hills. That’s where he got involved with charitable organizations such as the AIDS Services Foundation and food-distribution programs.

In the 1980s, he started volunteering at Mission Hospital

Rustad said working with people in hospice care is a special form of being a chaplain.

“I get to be their last new friend.”

Like family

Rustad first met Butcher in November, when the older man’s failing heart sent him to hospice care in Mission Viejo.

Rustad had another patient in the home, and he’d chatted with Butcher off and on.

Rustad, trained in helping veterans, recognized Butcher’s Navy service photos and asked about his time in the military.

Rustad also asked Butcher about his dog tags; Butcher said those had been lost a long time ago. So Rustad made him a new set.

Dog tags are important, Rustad explains. Many veterans pass them to family in their will or request to be buried with them.

Rustad also had a memorial blanket made for Butcher. It shows Navy ships and Butcher’s own portrait.

After a few visits, Butcher, who previously kept to himself, warmed to Rustad. When Rustad told him he was a chaplain, Butcher told him he was Christian Scientist and didn’t need that.

“I told him, ‘I’m coming as a friend,’” Rustad said. “He told me that would be OK.”

That’s the goal.

Rustad said he tries to treat each person “like family,” adding “very quickly, all of us will be in the same situation.”

Now, Butcher looks forward to his outings with Rustad.

“He doesn’t butt into my business,” Butcher said.

“He just comes here to do his job.”