The hospital emergency department was almost a second home to Mary Kay Balchunas. How many times had she, as hospital chaplain, huddled, waited and prayed with panicked families as their child was treated in the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee.
But this time, it was different. This time, it was Mary Kay and her husband, Don, anxiously keeping vigil in the Froedtert Hospital emergency room. They had been roused from sleep at 1:20 in the morning by a phone call from their son Jay’s employer at the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Jay had been hurt, the caller told her husband, and they were sending someone to take them to him at the hospital.
By the time they arrived at the hospital early in the morning on Oct. 29, 2004, Mary Kay realized the situation facing her eldest son, a 5-year veteran of the DOJ who had worked as a Milwaukee Police officer for nine years before that and was a volunteer firefighter for the City of New Berlin, was grave.
“They took us to a quiet room, which is never a good thing in my estimation,” said Mary Kay, remembering the first hours after getting the news that Jay had been shot in the abdomen while on duty.
They learned that Jay had been working second shift that night for a colleague whose mother was ill. Mary Kay guesses he was probably tired, because he stopped at a gas station on West Villard Avenue on the northwest side of Milwaukee for a cup of coffee, something he rarely drank.
As she has learned from police reports, he was confronted by two men – Dionny Reynolds, then 26, and Anthony Bolden, then 19.
“One had a gun,” said Mary Kay, and as the other walked past him, he tried to frisk him and felt Jay’s gun under his jacket,” she described.
“Dude’s got a gun,” Bolden said to his cohort, Reynolds.
Mary Kay Balchunas will be honored by the Sisters of the Divine Savior as their 15th annual Woman of Faith on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m., at the Sisters of the Divine Savior Community House, 4311 N. 100th St., Milwaukee.
“Jay said, ‘I’m police, I’m police,’ but according to Mary Kay, Reynolds pulled the trigger and shot Jay in the stomach, piercing his liver.
Jay got to his car radio and contacted his partner who arrived within minutes.
He was transported to Froedtert and for the next seven days, clung to life, undergoing five surgeries as doctors tried to salvage his damaged liver.
But the damage was too severe, and the following Wednesday, his kidneys started to fail.
“He had a really strong heart though,” said Mary Kay, noting her son was in good physical shape, probably what allowed him to keep fighting for nearly a week. But on Thursday, Nov. 5, Special Agent Jay Balchunas’ “watch ended” as is memorialized on the Wisconsin Department of Justice website.
Instead of preparing for his wedding the following September, the Balchunas family laid 34-year-old Jay to rest on Nov. 9, 2004. Mary Kay, a 1992 master’s of theological studies graduate from Saint Francis de Sales Seminary who also holds a doctorate in leadership from Cardinal Stritch University (2011), had been planning to preach at Jay’s upcoming nuptials, but instead eulogized him at his funeral.
She spoke of his life of service, how he wanted to help people, how he loved what he was doing, how he was looking forward to marriage, loved his siblings and his nephews and how a strong faith guided his life.
That eulogy was so impressive to one of Jay’s coworkers at the DOJ, Eric Szatkowski, that some 10 years after his death, it was part of the reason he nominated Mary Kay for the 2015 Woman of Faith Award, which she will receive from the Sisters of the Divine Savior on Thursday, Sept. 17.
“It was a tragic event, unimaginable for Jay’s parents,” wrote Szatkowski in nominating her for the award. “Nonetheless, Mary Kay summoned unbelievable strength and courage to give the most powerful and inspiring eulogy at her son’s funeral Mass. Even in the face of such unfathomable grief, she honored her son’s memory and life with a deeply moving eulogy based on Christian values of service, love and even forgiveness,” he wrote, adding that her actions that day inspired him to pursue a career as a chaplain upon his retirement from law enforcement.
Christine Byars, a digital forensic examiner for the Wisconsin Department of Justice/Division of Criminal Investigation, in a secondary nomination for the award, also spoke of how Mary Kay’s words affected her.
“Mary Kay Balchunas had a profound effect on me from the moment I heard her speak. It was a day I will never forget, a day I replay in my mind often,” she wrote, describing how Mary Kay stood in front of hundreds of people and “spoke eloquently through the grief of just losing her oldest son.”
“As I listened to her, I realized I was witnessing not only her faith but the Holy Spirit and God’s grace giving her the strength to speak about Jay,” said Byars.
Not only did Mary Kay inspire those who heard her that day, according to the Salvatorians who chose her for the award, but she has continued to “share her healing message of hope and forgiveness with survivors of violence, trauma response teams and law enforcement personnel,” according to a press release from the religious community.
For Mary Kay, speaking to law enforcement personnel, at a restorative justice event and law enforcement memorials are ways to continue Jay’s legacy.
“If we can help others through what happened to Jay, then it’s important for me to do that,” she said.
Mary Kay returned to her position as chaplain at Children’s Hospital shortly after Jay’s death and admitted that her work was more informed by her own experience with a son’s death.
“I thought I knew what people were going through and had an idea of what it was like, but from being in it and seeing it, after I knew in my heart what it was like,” she said adding it taught her that different people respond to grief differently and “I know I needed to walk with them where they were at.”
Being back in the hospital was not easy, admitted Mary Kay, who said that for probably six or seven years, a coworker assisted families of gunshot victims, “because it was too hard for me.”
It wasn’t often that Mary Kay shared her own loss with families at Children’s, but she recalled one incident where a woman whose son was dying in the Intensive Care Unit asked her if she had children.
“I said I have three, and for some reason, she asked me about my oldest,” recalled Mary Kay. “Where is he?” the lady asked and Mary Kay responded, “He’s in heaven.”
When she asked how, Mary Kay told her, “the same situation your son is facing.”
“From that point on, we had a bond and it was probably later that day or the next when she was sitting in the waiting room, literally pulling out shocks of hair from her scalp. As I kneeled in front of her, she asked me how she could go on. I said, ‘You’ll go on the same way I did, one day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time and will rely on your faith and family and friends to get you through.’”
Mary Kay retired from Children’s Hospital last December, but continues to serve as chaplain for the New Berlin Police Department, teaches a course on understanding death and dying at Concordia University, offers the invocations at law enforcement memorial ceremonies and has traveled to several states and Puerto Rico speaking to law enforcement groups, offering advice on how to be there for families of victims.
Looking for something “fun” to do as well, she said she recently volunteered to be a wedding host at her parish, St. Mary, Hales Corners, where she does everything from opening the doors for the rehearsal, to meeting the photographer to getting things ready for the priest.
“It’s just fun to see everybody happy and smiling,” she said of her role at the parish.
In channeling her grief by reaching out to survivors of violence, Mary Kay hopes to impart a message she shared at Jay’s funeral.
“I remember telling people it’s natural to question why, but what we need is to question how I can love and what I can do from here. How can we take what the Gospel is saying — that there is no greater love than this — and using Jay’s life example, go out and say, ‘How can we love?’”
The answer, said Mary Kay, may be as simple as uttering a small prayer for the responders and the victims when one hears a siren.
She also carries on by trying to find grace in all around her.
“For me, often that grace is in other people, knowing that Christ lives in them,” she added.