When Lisa Edwards learned she had cervical cancer in 2009, she called the parish nurse.
“I need you,” the mother of three said to Cindy Rocco, a registered nurse who was employed by First Congregational Church in Hudson, Ohio, to help members with health problems.
“I was overwhelmed with the treatment options. I was worried about what to do with my children. There was so much to think about that I was in total shutdown mode. I didn’t want to do research. I needed Cindy to think for me,” Edwards said.
Rocco accompanied Edwards to a doctor’s appointment, organized volunteers to bring in meals three times a week during her treatment and helped find activities and services aimed at families of cancer sufferers.
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“I truly don’t know what I would have done without her,” Edwards said.
As a profession, parish nurses are a fairly recent phenomenon.
The movement was founded in 1985 by the Rev. Granger E. Westberg, a Lutheran clergyman in Chicago who sought to merge his experience as a pastor and hospital chaplain. His first effort was to link medical systems to six area congregations in Park Ridge, Ill., believing that having a nurse available to church members would allow them to discuss health concerns before they became serious conditions.
The ministry spread, and today there are more than 12,000 parish nurses in the United States.
The concept is embraced passionately in Hudson, where the ministerial association and the nonprofit Laurel Lake Retirement Community started touting parish nurses nearly a decade ago.
While the large First Congregational Church can fund its own medical professional, other churches have teamed up to provide the service to their flocks.
Laurel Lake hired Rocco — she turned her First Congregational reins over to another nurse this year — to begin programs at Rejoice Lutheran Church, Christ Church Episcopal and First Presbyterian Church of Hudson.
“I love what I do,” said Rocco, who is brimming with ideas for her new congregations. “It’s a calling.”
Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, Ohio, has been bringing area practitioners together since 2008. It hosts a quarterly meeting, where attendance has been as high as 25, said Sallie Messerly, a registered nurse and Robinson Memorial’s health educator.
They come from Portage, Summit, Geauga, Mahoning and Jefferson counties and represent denominations from Catholic and Orthodox to Mennonite and Unitarian.
“We knew there was parish nursing and faith community nursing out there, so we talked about it with a few R.N.s who worked here and threw together a program,” Messerly said.
Robinson offers continuing education credits in parish nursing four times a year, preceded by a dinner where the nurses can discuss challenges and get advice from group mentor Michalene King, a parish nurse and professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Messerly said there are a few differences between the work of a traditional nurse and a parish nurse.
“Parish nurses don’t do hands-on care,” like giving shots or changing bandages, she said. Instead, their focus is on promoting health and preventing illness.
Also, while many traditional nurses are no doubt spiritual, parish nurses wear their spirituality on their sleeves.
The Rev. Michael Conklin of Rejoice Lutheran in Hudson said he’s thrilled his small congregation of 165 souls has a parish nurse through the Laurel Lake partnership.
“We’d never be able to afford one on our own,” he said as he took a break from installing a fence around the church garden. “When you’re small, you do everything you can yourself, from building deer fences to changing out the trash bags.”
Still, it is taking some prodding to get his flock to understand the roll a parish nurse can play in their lives.
“At first, people don’t know what a parish nurse is and can’t imagine needing one,” Conklin said. “I just keep directing them. When someone has a (health-related) issue, I tell them, ‘You should talk to Cindy,’” he said. And when they’re too shy to take that step, “sometimes I have Cindy call them.”
Sharon Straka took little convincing. The Rejoice Lutheran member joined the Faith & Fitness program Rocco had just started at the church, encouraging people to exercise and eat healthier.
“I’ve tried every weight-loss plan imaginable, and I was tired of giving Weight Watchers $40 a month to not lose weight, but I needed to be accountable to someone,” Straka said.
So she checks in with Rocco once a week, either in person or by phone. Faith & Fitness participants also can join in biking trips or yoga classes.
“Sometimes if I’m having a bad day, I just text or email her and she’ll write back and tell me, ‘Hang in there. You can do this,’” Straka said. “Sometimes, that’s all I need.”
In addition to planned programs, Rocco spends a lot of time helping congregants with personal issues. They come to her if they’ve been diagnosed with an illness or get a new medication that they don’t understand.
“They may need volunteers to make meals or give them rides to chemotherapy,” Rocco said. “Maybe they just need me to pray with them.”
All of the Hudson churches also have access to Laurel Lake’s community resource coordinator, Kristin Keller.
She said she has worked with women who are getting divorced and face a tremendous emotional crisis. “They want to know how to apply for benefits, food stamps, Medicaid, the lunch program for their kids,” she said.
Because Keller’s office is an Ohio Benefit Bank site, “we can sit in their home or in my office and apply for those things,” she said.
When caregivers are stressed out while looking after their aging, ill parents, “the pastors can do the spiritual side, and the parish nurses work with the medical side, but I can also maybe arrange for respite, or see if they qualify for (home health aide financial help), or find them support groups,” Keller said.
Other folks have been directed to Keller because their homes were in foreclosure or their utilities have been cut off.
“Their pastor knows what has happened and can send them to us, and we can head off a lot of things, maybe foreclosure intervention or get them credit counseling,” she said.
In return, some parishioners who have been helped by a parish nurse are eager to pay the favor forward.
Lisa Edwards, the cancer survivor, is working with First Congregational’s new parish nurse to start a support group for women with cancer or cancer survivors who have children at home.
“These women have different types of cancers, but they are all facing the same life issues involving their family,” Edwards said.
Parish nurse Kaye Collins is still getting her feet wet in that new job, although she has 30 years of experience to draw on.
“For me, nursing was always a mission,” Collins said of her decades working at county hospitals and emergency rooms.
When she was asked to take the job at First Congregational so Rocco would be free to help smaller churches in town, Collins took three months to give her response.
Now on the job for two months, there are no regrets.
“I absolutely made the right decision,” Collins said.