December 2023
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My Story: Carolyn (Cathey) Castelli

Submitted by Carolyn (Cathey) Castelli
(from Dalat Alumni Blog)

Helping the ‘bruised and broken’

Dalat alumna Carolyn (Cathey) Castelli has spent a lifetime serving those in emotional suffering.

Carolyn (Cathey) Castelli, ’68, remembers the rocket blasts vividly. Shot off behind Dalat School, they soared overhead and exploded into the valley below. Castelli moved quickly, with other young students, to a lower, more protected area of the dorm. They huddled together, praying to get through the night in one piece.

Though they survived this close encounter, the school soon had to evacuate to escape the escalating Vietnam War closing in. Castelli was 14 years old at the time.

“I remember my friends in the States writing me notes like, ‘don’t get shot over there” she says. “I was anxious at first, but then I felt a deep abiding peace that could only come from God. I knew He was in control of every situation and nothing could happen by accident without His knowledge.”

This understanding of God has been a beacon for Castelli from her early teens — when her family moved to Vietnam — until now. Looking back, it’s clear that nothing in her life has happened “by accident.”

Today, Castelli is a psychiatric nurse living in New York. It’s a career that’s been more of a calling, shaped significantly by her early experiences.

“I had wanted to be a nurse since I was 6 years old,” she says. “I had a nurse’s kit with candy pills, and I loved taking care of my ‘sick’ dolls.

“Due to my parents being in the ministry and caring for people in crisis, I was curious about why people behaved in ways that required intervention. I also had some fears and anxiety symptoms as a child, and was curious about that as well.”

Castelli’s curiosity, combined with a strong belief in a loving God, ultimately led to a lifetime mission to help the “bruised and broken” in this world.

Moving to Vietnam

As a teenager, Castelli packed up and moved with her family from New York to Saigon — right when the Vietnam War began heating up. Her father was called to pastor the International Protestant Church there in 1964.

Castelli first attended the American Community School in Saigon for a semester before enrolling at Dalat School, which was then located in Da Lat, Vietnam. Within four months, the school evacuated to Bangkok. After another semester, Dalat moved to Tanah Rata, Malaysia, in the Cameron Highlands. Castelli moved with the school to each new location, and it was in Tanah Rata that Castelli eventually graduated.

Some of her most vivid memories of Tanah Rata were the search for Jim Thompson, a missing American businessman and CIA officer who was never found. A Dalat teacher, Ms. Jean Laing, also went missing in the jungle for a few weeks, but was eventually found alive.

Castelli also shares this story:

There was a Malaysian man, allegedly working for the United Nations who spoke at our school about his work. However, a few days after he lectured us, it was discovered he had eloped from a mental institution and was impersonating someone from the UN; he may have had delusions of grandeur. He had convinced an entire community, if briefly, that he was connected to a powerful agency, even lobbying the town leaders in Tanah Rata for our school to have better fields.

This particular experience left a deep impression on Castelli, and contributed to her later interest in psychiatry.

During Castelli’s senior year — also the graduating year for John “Tommy” Tompkins, Robert John Carlsen, David Waite, Esther Gibbs, Ruth Ellison, and Darrell Heckendorf — she was again devastated by the war not so far away. Five missionaries in Banmethuot, Vietnam, were killed during the Tet Offensive, including some whose children were studying at Dalat.

“I remember feeling so badly for our fellow students who lost their parents, and so inadequate in knowing what to say or how to comfort them,” she says.

Those difficult times were balanced by Castelli’s memories of “wonderful classmates.” She was deeply involved in campus life, even being editor of the school newspaper Eagle’s Eye, and serving in the Student Court and on Student Council. Each experience increased her leadership skills, preparing her for the future.

Among her favorite teachers were the Miners, Bresslers, Miss Kelck, Miss Wehr, Miss Forbes, and Ralph and Linda Duell. They prepared her well for the competitive college environment she was about to enter in the United States, she says.

After High School

After graduating from Dalat, Castelli began pursuing her life-long dream of becoming a nurse. She enrolled in Wheaton College, while her parents finished up one more year of pastoring in Saigon as her brother, Gordon Leland (Lee) Cathey finished his senior year at Dalat. He graduated in 1969.

Castelli finished a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Spalding College in Louisville, Ky. It was there she discovered her niche in psychiatric nursing. She went on to complete a Master of Community Mental Health Nursing at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Following university, Castelli spent a year in Israel volunteering as a nurse, then returned to begin a career at New York Hospital (now known as New York-Presbyterian Hospital). Founded in 1791, the hospital is one of the largest freestanding psychiatric hospitals in the United States.

The ‘bruised and broken’

On the job, Castelli has worked mostly with patients who have personality disorders — many are very challenging, with abandonment issues and self-destructive behaviors, she says.

One of the best parts of the job is “seeing patients rescued from great emotional suffering through the common grace of good treatment and caring staff,” Castelli says. “Also, to see patients choose life instead of suicide or self-injurious behavior. To see patients recover and go on to lead meaningful, successful lives.”

Castelli has worked in a variety of roles, and is now focused on nursing administration, including teaching and mentoring nursing students and new graduates. “I enjoy seeing nursing students go from misunderstanding or fearing mental illness to catching the vision of mental health and hope,” she says.

This hope has impacted Castelli’s life personally as well, she says. “I’ve had some painful emotional times and some physical health struggles over the years since leaving Dalat. I’ve cried out to God, reached out to friends, prayed with my Moms in Prayer group, consulted with my pastor, and at times met with professional counselors — especially during life transitions. Our whole family has benefited by increasing our support systems.”

Castelli emphasizes that often God himself provides the counselor, therapist, friend, or support group to help us get through difficult times: “God’s gifts of mercy and encouragement are key to advocating for and supporting those who are ‘bruised and broken’ — which is all of us, when you think about it.”

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