In her standard outfit of Diane von Furstenberg dresses, a Louis Vuitton bag and patent leather pumps, Nina Herrmann looks as if she works in the world of fashion. But the electronic pager hooked to her waist does not summon her to modeling calls. When it beeps, Rev. Nina Herrmann is needed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
“It’s not how you look, but how willing you are to get involved,” says the 34-year-old Presbyterian minister and hospital chaplain. When it comes to involvement in her work, Reverend Herrmann is totally willing. The Rehabilitation Institute, affiliated with Northwestern University, is an “en route place” for patients, Nina explains. People suffering from serious illnesses or accidents go there to prepare themselves for a return to the world. As chaplain, Nina’s job is to spread cheer and comfort, cajole and, most of all, to listen. “We help people face themselves again.”
One patient who asked for Nina was 18-year-old Patty Flannery, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after an auto accident last September. “I’ve been arguing with nurses and doctors because I want to do things for myself,” Patty told her. Nina had heard from the staff about her rebellion and gently counseled, “If you can hang onto your patience, you have the key to discovering yourself and God.”
Though she was always religious, Nina’s entry into the ministry was unplanned. Born in Maryland, an only child, she aimed for journalism. After graduation from Northwestern she worked for UPI, then for NBC in New York and Washington before returning to Chicago to become a reporter for WGN-TV. She also began taking courses at the divinity school of the University of Chicago, because she “was tired of losing every time I started to argue about religion.”
As part of her studies she put in six months in a children’s ward at a hospital—and that changed her life. The confrontation with sickness and pain deepened her faith that the dying children she cared for would find eternity in God. Quitting her TV job, Nina wrote a book about her hospital experiences, Go Out in Joy! Symbolically, she finished it with the words: “Not the End.” “I have never not believed in God, although I’ve had anger with God,” she says. “That’s legitimate.”
Ordained in 1976, Reverend Herrmann still fumes over what she says is society’s insensitivity to the handicapped. “How many churches have ramps?” she snaps. “It makes me boil to hear, ‘Well, the handicapped don’t come to church.’ Of course they don’t, because they can’t.”
On occasion, when she finds herself unable to watch the struggles of patients any longer, Nina may call her own minister or withdraw to her 40th-floor studio apartment in a downtown high-rise. She has decorated her tiny refuge with art, plants, a collection of music boxes and more than 15 teddy bears. She finds that baking her own whole-wheat bread soothes her, as does reading spy thrillers or historical potboilers. She is also not opposed to an occasional cigarette or dry martini.
Loneliness can be a problem for her, Nina admits. “I certainly have enough dates, but people often ask me if guys are put off because I’m a minister. I hope I do get married, but if I don’t I won’t be traumatized.” Her busy schedule—working with 170 inpatients plus counseling hospital staffers—leaves little time for brooding though. “I can’t tell people how to believe,” Nina says. “Sometimes they pray for miracles. I never take away that hope, but I try to help them live from day to day until the miracle happens.”