by Cori Hilsgen
St. Joseph resident Brenda Hommerding isn’t a person who likes having everyone’s attention focused on her, but she is a person who likes to focus her attention on other people. Especially if that means helping them when they need medical care.
Hommerding has spent the past 32 years working as a nurse in the Medical Oncology Unit at St. Cloud Hospital.
Throughout those years, she has had many significant and impactful experiences as a nurse.
One of those experiences took place 23 years ago on Jan. 29, 1996, when St. Joseph Police Officer Brian Klinefelter was shot after he tried to arrest three suspects connected to a liquor store robbery in Albany.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page website, Klinefelter was shot as he approached the suspects’ pickup, with bullets striking him in his neck and waist.
The suspects split up after a chase. The shooter forced himself into a house, taking the owner hostage, forcing him to drive around police roadblocks and then locking him in the trunk of the car.
A Benton County Sheriff’s deputy shot the suspect after ordering the man to drop his gun, and he refused to do so. The other two suspects were located hiding under a deck, arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
That night, Hommerding had received a call from her co-worker, who was not feeling well, asking if Hommerding could come to work early. She said she remembers sitting for a few minutes before deciding she should probably get going.
While she was driving to work on CR 75, she saw a squad car with its lights flashing, slowed down and saw Klinefelter lying in the middle of the road. Hommerding said she pulled over and immediately went to his side to see what she could do.
Another officer arrived and assisted until the St. Joseph Fire Department Rescue Squad arrived. She remembers thinking to herself that she was never so glad to see anyone.
Hommerding also remembers the care and compassion the rescue workers showed for Klinefelter, a friend of theirs.
“Deep in my heart, and my nurse eyes, I knew he was gone, but I held out hope,” she said.
It was bitterly cold that night and Hommerding was dressed in hospital scrubs. When she arrived at St. Cloud Hospital, one of her co-workers brought her some clean scrubs to replace the blood-stained ones she was wearing. Another co-worker washed her coat in the unit’s laundry room.
“I think back and remember being so numb, but also felt so taken care of for them to do that for me without me even asking,” Hommerding said.
After this incident, she said she totally lost her sense of security. Hommerding worried about what she was going to encounter when she was driving and couldn’t drive on CR 75 without having flashbacks.
For several months, she drove the long way around to avoid CR 75. Her heart would drop to her toes each time she saw flashing lights at the side of the road. She walked around her family’s house making sure the doors were all locked.
“There were always things that would bring back the memories,” Hommerding said. “The cold, driving at night and more.”
In the past, a retired nurse volunteer read an article in the St. Cloud Visitor looking for nurse heroes. The volunteer went from unit to unit asking staff if there was someone they knew who might qualify for this recognition. One of Hommerding’s co-workers gave her Hommerding’s name.
After that, Hommerding said the volunteer seemed to be on a mission, sending in the nomination and letters from numerous people to support the nomination.
In April 1996, Hommerding received a congratulatory letter stating that she had been selected for a Nurse Hero Award, which was sponsored by the American Red Cross and the American Nurses Association. The award was presented in Washington, D.C.
But, Hommerding said she doesn’t feel like a hero.
“More so that Brian had been lost and there were so many people whose lives were touched that night,” she said. “I just stopped and did what I could. I wasn’t held up at gunpoint, kidnapped and forced in the trunk of a car and my home wasn’t broken into. I just stopped because that’s who I am, a nurse. Not a hero. And that is why I felt so guilty.”
In December, Hommerding was assigned to take care of Klinefelter’s father, Dave, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The morning she received the assignment, all of those feelings came back to her. Her heart was racing and she was full of anxiety.
“I didn’t know if I had it in me to care for him,” she said. “But I did. I knew in my heart that I could do it. I didn’t want the family or Dave to know who I was or what my connection to them was. My only wish was to take care of Dave and the family.”
Hommerding said it wasn’t about her or Brian, but about Dave. Shortly before Dave was discharged from the hospital, Brian’s mother, Lois, figured out Hommerding’s connection to him.
Hommerding said she had such a feeling of relief that she was given the chance to connect with the family and talk. She was able to tell them about her feeling of guilt for all these years.
Having the chance to meet Brian’s parents and brother, Jason, has given Hommerding a huge feeling of compassion for her career.
“Hearing their words and what it meant to them (that their son didn’t die alone) just warmed my heart,” she said. “I knew God had put me there that cold night for something so powerful to happen so many years later. I always wondered and asked, “why.” Now I know. It truly was divine intervention.”
Caring for her husband
Hommerding said caring for Dave and the Klinefelter family was a big step for her because she had recently started taking care of comfort-care patients after losing her husband, Glenn, almost six years ago to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease which affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
Hommerding said she needed to care for herself first and needed to put up a protective wall that allowed her to have the compassion to protect her heart from all the feeling that the families she was caring for were experiencing before she could take care of comfort-care patients.
Glenn was diagnosed with the disease Nov. 2011. At the time, he was a route driver for the Epilepsy Foundation, a position he retired from in Dec. 2011.
“Our ALS journey lasted until Feb. 24, 2013, when he passed away in my arms with our family surrounding him,” she said.
Brenda and Glenn met in 1984 at a dance in Spring Hill, married in September 1987 after she finished college at St. Cloud Hospital School of Nursing, and were married 25 years.
Their family will forever be connected to ALS. They participate with a family team called “Glenn’s Harley Walkers” at the “St. Cloud Walk to Defeat ALS.” Hommerding also volunteers with the St. Cloud ALS Support Group as a co-facilitator
“It was so easy to internalize their feelings and feel the hurt and pain of losing your best friend all over again,” she said.
Hommerding goes about her job every day with the thought that she has the ability to make a difference in her patients’ world, for that moment or that day. Whether it is teaching them about their diagnosis, treatment or just being present for them.
Her goal is to leave a small fingerprint in her patients’ world.
“I still remember being a student nurse and walking through the tunnel from the school to the hospital thinking I was never going to find my way around that big place,” she said. “Sometimes I still think that.”
Brenda and Glenn’s children include three sons, Matthew, Jeremy and Tyler. Matthew is married to Kathy Hansen; Jeremy is engaged to Rachel Lange; and Tyler is engaged to Kayla Zabinski.
Hommerding also has a cat, Fritz, and seven grand dogs and three grand cats.
Brenda grew up in a family of 11, including her parents, five girls and four boys, on a farm near Elrosa. Glenn grew up in a family of seven boys, near Spring Hill.
Author: Cori Hilsgen
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people’s stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.