Nursing the needs of congregants

Care: A parish nurse program in Howard County offers members of the church health education and spiritual support.

March 12, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The bookshelf in Kristine Holmes' office reflects her career path.

Healing Prayer and To Forgive Is Human share space with Trauma and Recovery and The Nursing Drug Reference.

After 25 years as an emergency and trauma nurse, Holmes entered the burgeoning field of parish nursing, which seeks to integrate the role of faith in health and healing. Since she became a full-time parish nurse in 1999 at First Presbyterian Church of Howard County in Columbia, Holmes has worked to introduce the concept to other faith communities in the county.

Since then, the county's congregations with parish nurses have increased from seven to 25, and Holmes coordinates monthly meetings for the faith-based nurses at First Presbyterian.

"We're in the process of slowly defining what is the role of the faith community in health," said Holmes, 51. "I think the potential is tremendous, but to have the churches understand what their roles could be is challenging."

With the exception of taking blood pressure readings, a parish nurse does not provide health care.

Based on an assessment of the health care needs of the congregation, a parish nurse offers health education, advocacy and support.

The nurse's work might include organizing a health fair, teaching parenting classes or helping a parishioner obtain health insurance.

Holmes said that some members of her congregation couldn't afford health care.

"We have folks who do not have health insurance, folks who are underinsured and people who struggle to pay for prescriptions," she said.

Led by the Rev. Granger E. Westberg, the parish nurse movement began in Chicago about 30 years ago in an effort to reclaim the role of health care in the historic Judeo-Christian tradition.

"A person's spiritual health has a profound impact on their physical health," said Deborah L. Patterson, executive director of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center in St. Louis.

Patterson said she frequently defines the role of parish nurses by what they don't do.

"A parish nurse isn't a home health care nurse, doesn't prescribe medications, is not a physician, won't diagnose a medical condition, won't provide treatment and is not a clergyperson," she said.

According to the center's estimates, there are about 10,000 parish nurses worldwide, with all but about 1,000 in the United States.

"We used to have to knock on doors to try to explain what parish nursing is," Patterson said. "Now the phone rings off the hook."

Holmes' interest in parish nursing began in 1996 when she was a seasoned emergency room nurse.

She scanned her caseload one night, and recognized the name of a fellow parishioner at First Presbyterian. The man had suffered a massive stroke.

"I took care of him and his family the way I'd take care of anybody," she said. "The difference was that I'd go and sit by the bedside and help the family get answers from doctors. ... I did that up until he died."

On her pastor's advice, Holmes started to research parish nursing. Over the next three years, she completed an education program in parish nursing, left the emergency room and became a full--time parish nurse at First Presbyterian.

Early in her new profession, she was surprised to find that simply taking a blood pressure reading helped people to open up about their health care concerns.

"In this intimate setting, suddenly a person's telling you all kinds of things, like not having any health insurance or a job loss," she said.

Holmes might refer someone to a doctor or contact the county Office on Aging, the Health Department or another agency that can resolve a problem.

Last May, with funding from Kaiser Permanente, Holmes set up a diabetes support group at First Presbyterian. The managed-care company sponsored other groups around the state to study how support groups affect knowledge of an illness.

Holmes said that the group's shared connection to the congregation enhanced the members' relationships.

Participant Joan Channel said she found the group helpful.

"We would pray, but it was also educational," Channel said. "It taught you to be better at setting health care goals."

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