A place of worship, a place of wellness: Parish nursing program growing in southern Rowan churches

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 19, 2008

By Susan Shinn
Churches have long been known as places of sanctuary and respite. Now a growing number of churches in the South Rowan area are further caring for the mind, body and spirit through parish nursing.
The southern end of the county got its first parish nurse in 2001. Now nearly a dozen parish nurses are serving these congregations through the parish nursing program at Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast. Twenty-nine parish nurses serve in Cabarrus County.
In Rowan, four of the eleven nurses are in paid positions through their congregations, with the remainder serving as volunteers. Nurses typically have office hours, visting members at home or in the hospital as needed. These services are free.
Growth in the program has come via word-of-mouth, with parishioners telling friends and neighbors of the benefits of parish nursing, says Carol Hovey, Rowan County coordinator.
“It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense,” Hovey says. “Prevention has to take place outside the walls of the hospital. The hospital does not have a longtime connection with the patient that a church does with its parishioners.”
Hovey was the first parish nurse in Cabarrus County in 1998. She serves two days a week as a parish nurse, also working with Pam Hurley, program director.
“Pam is an excellent manager,” Hovey says. “We couldn’t do it without each other.”
(A parish nursing program has not yet begun at Rowan Regional Medical Center.)
Lisa Wallace, a parish nurse at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, China Grove, explains parish nursing through an easy acronym, I CARE.
Wallace sees herself as an Integrator of faith and health. Parish nurses are Counselors, Advocates, Referral sources and Educators for the congregations they serve.
Parish nurses can help parishioners navigate the often complicated and confusing world of health care.
They can help parishioners put together medication lists, and make sure there’s no potential for interactions.
They can talk with a nurse or physician if instructions aren’t clear.
They can conduct screenings and health fairs.
“In the past, medicine was a reactive process,” Wallace says. “Now there is a trend and a movement toward proactive healthcare. That preventive approach is what parish nursing falls under.
“I think it has a lot to do with the trend toward management and prevention of disease.”
It’s an offensive position, Wallace says. “In our culture, we have a lot of lousy health habits. We’re busy people. We don’t take care of ourselves as we should.”
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Hovey says, 50 percent of the factors affecting poor health are related to lifestyle.
This is where parish nurses can use education to head off illness, Wallace says.
Studies have found that people of faith, those who have a strong spiritual support system, heal faster and cope better with stressors in their lives than those who don’t.
“More and more, we believe there’s an integral relationship between spirituality and health,” says the Rev. Gregory Yeager, pastor of St. Mark’s. “I am very happy with the way things are going so far.”
But you can’t prove spirituality, Wallace says. It’s not empirical.
Parish nursing is an extension of that spirituality, she says. “There is a need to look at the person as a whole, not just a physical body.”
The church brings people together, she says, and it’s a natural place for parish nursing.
“People are more comfortable at church than at a doctor’s office,” Wallace says. “Parish nurses can take more time with parishioners.”
With hospital stays and home health care being limited, Wallace says, “the parish nurse can step into a situation and provide that person with a very valuable commodity: Time.”
Wallace acknowledges the complexity of healthcare. A patient can see “an armada” of healthcare providers, she says. “There are all these people who are specialized. It’s a cohesive group and team, but it can be overwhelming to the patient.”
A parish nurse can be a support person to the parishioner, to translate the language of healthcare, if you will.
“Healthcare has its own language,” Wallace says. “Those of us in healthcare, we speak that language. If you don’t understand the language, you can’t function in that culture.”
Parish nurses can also make referrals to other community resources.
Wallace has been at St. Mark’s since July. Not only is she working with the members of the congregation, she’ll also be reaching out into the community through the church’s tutoring program with China Grove Elementary School and its involvement in Main Street Mission.
Wallace will develop short- and long-term goals with each of these three groups.
Already, she’s offered blood pressure screenings to the seniors group on a monthly basis.
She plans other screenings.
“When you have a large number of people gathered, that’s a perfect time to provide something that’s convenient for them,” she says.
Wallace has office hours each Monday morning and is at church two Sunday mornings a month.
“You’re making the most of every opportunity to be available,” she says.
If a member mentions something after service, Wallace always makes a point to follow up.
Wallace was a nursing assistant when she heard about the parish nurse program.
“I thought it was one of the most interesting, fascinating and unique approaches to healthcare that I had ever heard,” she says. “The approach to the whole person was very important to me.”
She adds, “When this position became available, I was very excited about this church’s desire to serve not just this congregation but the community.
“I’m having a blast,” she continues. “I love it. It is the type of nursing I have wanted to do.”
“It is one of the most enjoyable, fulfilling things I could ever imagine.”