Mary Johnson served as a hospital chaplain at Mayo Clinic for 31 years. During that time, she often had a front-row seat to the difficult circumstances that brought people to the hospital. "One of the things chaplains commonly do is attend vigils that families are keeping with their dying loved ones," she tells us. "A typical example is being called to the emergency room at 2 a.m. because someone had been brought in after suffering a serious heart attack … or perhaps it was a car accident. I would go to the emergency room and sit with the family."
She'd often do the same in the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and the labor and delivery area at Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester. "Most of my work there was also loss-related," Chaplain Johnson tells us.
As heartbreaking as these events were to witness, she tells us it was "a privilege" to share that time with families. "I had some very memorable experiences."
The most memorable, Chaplain Johnson tells us, were the vigils that lasted through the night. "That's when the stories would come out," she says. "You start asking questions, and you learn a lot about who they were as a person and how they'll be missed by their families and community. And I mean, who gets to have those kinds of conversations? It's pretty rare."
It was with that in mind that a year before her retirement from Mayo Clinic, Chaplain Johnson started thinking about sharing those moments — using them as the foundation for her first play. "Once I did retire, I just started interviewing people who I knew had a vigil experience," she says. "Over time, as people found out I was doing this, they started coming to me to share their stories."
The result was roughly 100 stories that she and playwright (and longtime friend) Barbara Means Fraser have crafted into a new play called "Stay With Me Awhile." Thanks to the support of Seasons Hospice and the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation, the play will debut at the Rochester Civic Theatre in February 2018. "The play is constructed around themes, and its rhythm is like a wave," Chaplain Johnson tells us. "It goes from being intensely sad to happy to tragic. It's a play with a lot of strong emotions in it that are all part of the human experience."
She tells us that is what she hopes theatergoers will take away from the play. "I hope people see themselves and their experiences reflected on stage, and I hope that will help them to know they're not alone and that others have had these same experiences."
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