Parish nurses link faith and medicine

Healing: Kristine Holmes quit emergency room nursing after 25 years to join a growing grass-roots movement.

February 18, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When Kristine Holmes started offering blood-pressure screenings at First Presbyterian Church three years ago, she never expected that her twice-a-month volunteer effort would all but take over her life.

But the congregation wanted more than screenings. Soon Holmes was starting a Sunday morning health education class, organizing health fairs, arranging for ushers to receive CPR training, screening congregants for diabetes, visiting them in the hospital and starting a Christian weight loss program -- all on top of her full-time job as an emergency room nurse at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.

And still the congregation wanted more. So two months ago, Holmes left ER nursing after 25 years to become the church's first full-time parish nurse.

Her new job isn't fast-paced and exciting like her old one, Holmes said, but it does give her a quiet sense that she is serving God and, at the same time, taking part in a burgeoning grass-roots movement that many believe will change the face of health care in this country.

"We are trying to link faith and medicine," Holmes said. "We are trying to show people that they have choices in how to be healthy."

The parish nursing movement began in the mid- '80s at a Lutheran church in Illinois. Now, thousands of parish nurses work in churches all over the country, said Ann Solari-Twadell, director of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center in Park Ridge, Ill., and the movement has begun to enter the mainstream.

The American Nurses Association identified parish nursing as a specialty practice in 1997, she said, and in 1998, they published a booklet outlining standards for parish nursing.

Holmes received a certificate in parish nursing in 1998.

As an emergency room nurse, Holmes, 47, treated only the sick and injured. As a parish nurse, she focuses more on prevention and on the whole person. She does not do hands-on nursing, which frees her, instead, to focus on education and advocacy and organizing events for both her church of 900 congregants and for others who seek her help.

Recently, Holmes visited the home of two Ellicott City congregants who had had surgery. One, Dr. Cliff Ratliff, Jr., is recovering from knee surgery in both knees. His wife, Helen Jane Ratliff, is recovering from a full hip replacement.

Holmes visited them in the hospital when they were having their surgeries and tries to stop by their home every once in a while to say hello and see how they are recovering. The conversation quickly goes from knees and hips and the effectiveness of different painkillers to happier topics: grandchildren, vacation plans and the family dog, Lola.

Holmes "keeps my spirits up," said Helen Jane Ratliff. Cliff Ratliff, a retired physician, said "visitation, love and togetherness" always make people heal faster. As families scatter more and more, Holmes believes, there will be more of a need for parish nurses to provide love and togetherness to the elderly and people recovering from illness at home.

"They need to have that sense of connectedness," she said. "They need to have people that care."

Next month, Holmes and some other parish nurses in the county are starting a pilot program with Howard County General Hospital to help people keep their blood pressure under control. It's part of the hospital's goal to reduce the incidences of cardiovascular disease by 2002, said Marilyn Lauffer, an educator on the hospital's community health education staff.

"It seemed like such a perfect match, because you are reaching large numbers of the community in an environment that is comfortable," Lauffer said. "They are getting their blood pressure checked by people they see on a [regular] basis."

Holmes is also working to start a network of parish nurses in the county so that they can support each other and work with county agencies. Now, she said, she has no idea how many congregations in the county have parish nurses, although she guesses it's under 25.

Recently, she sent letters to 125 faith communities in the county to find out -- and to encourage them to start parish nursing programs if they don't already have one.

Ruth Bell, a parish nurse at Glen Mar United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, appreciates those efforts.

"Any time there are opportunities for networking, it's very useful," she said. "Parish nurses can feel quite isolated. We are working in a context where there are not usually other nurses."

Holmes hopes her efforts will contribute, one day, to a nationwide network of parish nurses who work together to help traveling congregants and their relatives.

"It's important to acknowledge that it really is key to the transformation of health care in this country," said Solari-Twadell. "It is one of the most concrete ways in which health promotion is being provided to members in their community. We talk a lot about health promotion, but it's not being funded very well. This is a way people can access resources without having to be sick."

Although the movement is fairly new, Holmes says, the concept is very, very old.

"Years and years and years ago, when people were sick, the first place they went was not to a physician, but the first place they went was to a priest," she said. "Healing and faith have always been linked very closely."

Other congregants at First Presbyterian Church say they have benefited from Holmes' efforts.

"I have recently had some major surgery, and it was very nice to have Kris," said Pat Baughman, of Ellicott City. "She not only called to see how I was, she prayed, she gave me hugs, she brought me a pillow. I'm an old ex-nurse -- and I do say old, cause I'm 74 -- and it was nice to have somebody like that."

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