Parish nurses add faith to their care

July 06, 1998

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer


Faith NursesBy TERRY TALBERT / Staff Writer

Joan Bachtell puts a lot of faith in her volunteer work, and she says the rewards are endless.

Bachtell is among a growing number of parish nurses in Washington County, and 4,000 internationally who work within their faith communities, bringing holistic health care to their congregations.

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That means helping them address their physical, spiritual and emotional needs.

Parish nursing is not the possession of a particular faith, but rather all faiths, said Wendy Zimmerman, parish nurse program coordinator for Washington County Health System Inc.


There are 13 county churches with active parish nursing programs, and more than 60 nurses have been trained as parish nurses in Washington County since the program began here in 1996, Zimmerman said.

While training volunteers like Bachtell is her job, in her heart Zimmerman remains a parish nurse. She and Bachtell talked about their work during a recent interview at Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, where Zimmerman is a parishioner.

Bachtell is a home health-care nurse who has been a parish nurse at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Hagerstown since September 1997. She's in the process of setting up an office within the church.

Parish nursing is recognized as a specialty practice by the American Nursing Association, Zimmerman said. To be a parish nurse, a person must be a registered nurse with a current license, she said.

Zimmerman said that among other things, parish nurses offer health education, personal health counseling and screening, information on new medications, information on side effects of medicines, and referrals to community resources.

"The focus is on prevention and wellness promotion," Zimmerman said. "In this country we spend 2 cents on the dollar on prevention. In China, they spend 80 cents on the dollar for prevention. A lot more can be done in that area here."

Zimmerman said it's important to know that parish nurses don't give personal health care to parishioners. "This is not clinically focused, hands-on type of nursing. It's almost like tying their hands behind their backs," she said. "Joan doesn't say 'I'll give bed baths' to a sick parishioner. She says 'I'll help you make phone calls' to find someone who will. Or she may teach a family member to care for someone who is sick. She is not the one providing the care."

Zimmerman worked for seven years as a parish nurse in the Chicago area, and sings its praises.

She said the parish nursing movement began in the mid-80s in the Midwest when a Lutheran pastor who also worked as a hospital chaplain saw that the health-care system was becoming more and more focused on physical need and the health of the body."It was becoming one-dimensional," Zimmerman said. "He saw the nurse as being really sensitive, not only to taking care of the body, but sensitive to the humanness of people."

One of the blessings of parish nursing is freedom to spend quality time with people who need help, Bachtell and Zimmerman said. They just may need a hug or an attentive ear. They may need to talk about their guilt at having to put their mother in a nursing home, or drug problems they're having with a child, Bachtell said.

"I think there's a craving people have that they want more than their body taken care of. They are saying 'Listen to me, do more than prescribe a pill,'" Zimmerman said.

Bachtell said parish nurses can offer help when the system fails.

"Patients are discharged from the hospital too soon because of insurance difficulties," she said. "If they're not referred from a social worker to an outside agency for care, there they are. Maybe on an old farm and with their only son in another part of the country. These people aren't well. We can get them help. We can educate them."

Bachtell and Zimmerman said they feel blessed to be part of a program that reaps bountiful personal rewards.

"It's a real privilege being part of people's suffering," Zimmerman said. "That's a real sacred place to be. To walk that path with someone is very fulfilling."

"It's what every nurse dreams about - the freedom to be able to pray with somebody - to sit and listen to them and not be bound by the restrictions of bureaucracy," Bachtell said.

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