By Neva Rae Fox

Parish nurse programs are strong in pockets of the Episcopal Church, with professional healthcare workers – nurses, doctors, and others – assisting in the health needs and education of their congregants. The scope and activities of the programs vary from church to church, reflecting the needs of the congregation and the community.

While some are called parish nurse programs, many have expanded and been named “health ministries” or something similar. Activities tend to center on basic needs: blood pressure screenings; church sponsored health fairs; lectures and courses; purchasing and maintaining defibrillators; CPR training; checking in on the vulnerable; coordinating blood drives; hospital and nursing home visits; and the dissemination of critical health information.

Recently of course, activities have been focused on the pandemic, including mask-making, food shopping and delivery, communications, transportation, and information.

At St. Philip’s in Circleville, Ohio, the seven-year-old parish nurse program team was quick to develop educational materials for parishioners about COVID-19 and pandemic mitigation measures.

“A team of clergy and Caring Ministry lay caregivers keep in touch regularly with homebound and vulnerable parishioners by phone,” said Virginia Wagenseller, RN, Christ & Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut. “In safe ways, we are able to deliver food, prescription needs and meals when needed.”

Thanks to the parish nurse program at St. Luke’s in Gladstone, New Jersey, hand sanitizers in all the pews and PPE (personal protective equipment) are not new items – they’ve been available for a long time. Going forward, Aileen Peterson and Valerie Kent, both registered nurses, are watching for post-pandemic issues and second-wave concerns.

In the Diocese of Northern California, the Diocesan Partners in Ministries of Healing & Health program supports churches that sponsor parish nurse programs, and provides services to those that do not. Susan Wahlstrom, RN, coordinator, explained, “As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our two areas of focus are recovery ministries and developing mental health resources. We see a tsunami of need in these two areas.”

The Rev. Carol E. Peterson, RN, a deacon and parish nurse at St. Peter’s in Brenham, Texas, is coordinating with volunteers to ensure that food is provided to the vulnerable. In addition, she has started a cloth face mask drive with sewing enthusiasts in the church, a service that many congregations have engaged in recently.

“Because our nurse herself is in a medically vulnerable category, even before our state’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, she stepped away from holding drop-in hours on Tuesday nights,” explained the Rev. Audra Abt, Church of the Holy Spirit in Greensboro, North Carolina. “This coincided with our community meal and pantry shifting from a banquet-style sit-down gathering to first a parking lot pick-up, then to a home delivery ministry when we could not ensure adequate physical distancing could be practiced.”

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