It was a distressing situation: a family divided by more than 2,000 miles and facing dire health situations on both ends. In Tucson, Ariz., John (last name withheld), a father of two boys, was hospitalized with a failing liver. Back in his home state of Maryland, his mother and sister were providing hospice care for his grandmother in their home and couldn’t leave her side. John’s mom was frantic, feeling torn and helpless.
In stepped Marilee Tollefson, a faith-community nurse at John’s home congregation in Maryland and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Parish Nurse Association (ELPNA). Wanting to do something for this family, she emailed another faith-community nurse she knew, Cindy Harris of Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Tucson, Ariz.
Harris read that email on a Friday evening at the end of a busy week, and though she didn’t know John or his family, she sprang into action. “I didn’t want to do it. It was out of my comfort zone,” she said. “But when God puts something on your heart, you go with it. You never know where God is going to take you.”
Faith-community nurses, also known as parish nurses, have been around for decades in many churches. They are experienced, often retired nurses who have been trained to nurture the whole person—body, mind and spirit.
Their role is determined by their particular congregation’s demographics and needs, but in general they support holistic health by organizing classes, assisting people as they transition out of the hospital or after childbirth, helping people adjust to new diagnoses and sometimes accompanying people to medical appointments. They work in partnership with congregations, hospitals, social-service providers and the community to promote prevention, wholeness and wellness.
Founded in 2004 as an affiliate ministry of the ELCA, the ELPNA is a network of registered nurses who either belong to a Lutheran congregation or work for one as a faith-community nurse.
It was this network that came through for John’s family. Tollefson and Harris were a comforting presence to them, relaying medical updates and other information back and forth. The two nurses were in constant contact with each other throughout the situation.
Tollefson was eventually able to arrange care for John’s grandmother in Maryland so his mother and sister could visit him in Arizona.
“Holistic health includes the family system. We want the family to be held together in God’s care.”
Complicating things was the fact that John and his wife were estranged, and she and his mother disagreed about his medical care. “There was a lot of conflict,” Tollefson said. Harris was able to provide an element of objectivity for the family as she assisted John’s overwhelmed wife and mother by connecting with his elementary-school-aged sons to explain what was going on.
“The kids were very lost. It was very hard for all of them,” Harris said, adding that she saw her role as being present for them and supportive. “It’s all about forming relationships, being there.”
Harris also asked people from her congregation to pray for John and his family. One of the pastors at Mount Zion visited John in the hospital and, after he died, performed the memorial service.
“It’s the family of Christ working together,” Tollefson said. “The perfect example of what a parish nurse can do. A parish nurse is one of the few who can capture all the emotions and dimensions of a situation and deal with them.”
Carol DeSchepper, chair of the ELPNA, said, “Holistic health includes the family system. We want the family to be held together in God’s care.” In this family’s case, she said, there wasn’t an organized structure in place to provide networking, but the connections made were a logical outflow of the ELPNA network.
Harris said most people aren’t aware that faith-community nurses exist and don’t know to ask for them in a health care crisis, but hospital discharge planners are becoming better at asking if patients and families have access to such support.
“There is definitely an opportunity for church visitation teams, pastors, etc., to help their congregants ask for this resource, or make a referral to a [faith-community nurse],” Harris said. “That is the best part of ELPNA—you can call the regional director for that area and she or he has access to the membership list and will look up a contact person, if available.”
The work is sometimes difficult and demanding, but Harris said she gets something out of it too. “God gifted me with the blessing of being a nurse,” she said. “I’m 71, and I’m being used at my age. It’s a wonderful way to serve and be called.”
For more information on the Evangelical Lutheran Parish Nurse Association, visit elpna.org.