Written by Carol Fenstermaker
July - August 2002
What exactly does a parish nurse do?
Do you know the motto of a parish nurse? "Maintain absolute rigid flexibility."
I never know exactly what my day will bring. I make appointments to take folks to tour long-term care facilities, or meet at the office to discuss their issues, or meet with staff from the local hospitals to discuss a discharge plan and then the unexpected happens, and I'm off to help with the crisis. In the past, this has come in the form of an unanswered telephone call and unanswered door of someone recently discharged from the hospital with depression. Was the person safe? That was the need that required priority. Or, it might be a phone call from a person needing a shoulder to cry on, or an accident requiring some support in the Emergency Room to sort through the many decisions that have to be made immediately.
So even though I schedule time in the office to work on content and programs, like the bulletin blurbs, the newspaper articles, or planning the Annual Health Fair, my priority is being with folks when support is needed.
Because much of my interaction with folks is one-on-one and often confidential, it is very difficult to totally explain just what it is that a parish nurse does. Health advocacy services are the heart and soul of my work. Often I am asked to help interpret health issues. When a doctor gives a diagnosis, generally the person hearing the information is so stressed at the time that it is hard to fully understand what is going on, even if he or she does understand the medical language. My role becomes an interpreter in the fullest sense of the word.
Since a parish nurse looks at the complete picture, this includes how the client feels relative to his or her personal situation. Often when confronted with a medical issue, our first thoughts are not how our care will affect us, but how our illness may affect others around us. Will my wife or husband be okay? Who will care for the children? What about my job? I don't have time to be sick! I don't have insurance! I'm scared; will I die? What are the alternate possibilities of care? Do I have to go to a nursing home? I can't afford that. I don't want to leave my house. I want to leave some money for my children; I don't want to spend it all. How will this slowly progressing disease affect my children's lives? I can't afford the medicine. Are my parents really ready for a nursing home? Should I ask for hospice yet? These are just a few of the many questions I deal with on a daily basis.
Folks still wonder what it is that I do. In large measure, that is because their needs and my ministry have not had to cross paths ... yet! For those who have allowed me to be a part of their lives, I am most grateful. I never know what the day will bring. But I am always thankful that God has called me to serve in this way.
Carol Fenstermaker has been an RN for 10 years, five of them as the parish nurse at St. John's UCC in Nazareth, Pa., a position she describes as her "job from heaven." We welcome contributions to Focus on Faith from laity and clergy.