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Parish nurse helps congregation stay healthy

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Kirkwood Church member Odell McCollough has his blood pressure checked by parish nurse Carol Connolly.
May 1, 2006

By John Gordon*

KIRKWOOD, Mo. (UMNS) — Carol Connolly is part of a growing movement of churches addressing not just the spiritual needs of their members, but also their physical well-being.

“It encompasses the life span,” said Connolly, a registered nurse who works two days a week as parish nurse at Kirkwood United Methodist Church near St. Louis.

“We can start with the tiny newborns up through the dying. And all in between, there’s just so much to do.”

A typical day of holistic healing might find Connolly checking the blood pressure of the ROMEOs — an informal church group whose name stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out. Many of the members are in their 70s and 80s.

“I’m 80, and I don’t consider myself that old,” said Ken Edscorn, one of the ROMEOs. He strongly endorses parish nursing. “I just feel it’s a very important part of our community effort as a church.”

Another ROMEO, Robert Frost, 72, said the weekly check gives him reassurance. Frost said he closely monitors his health since suffering his first heart attack at 35.

“As long as I get as much as I can out of each day, that’s all I expect,” he said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Parish nurse Carol Connolly (right) demonstrates manicure techniques for Claire Swehla, 9 (left), and Sarah Bonner, 9 (center) at Uniquely You.

When she’s not checking blood pressure for the ROMEOs, Connolly might be taking young girls from the Uniquely You class to a restaurant for a lesson on healthy eating. The class teaches self-esteem to girls between 9 and 14.

Boarding the church bus to go to the restaurant, Connolly reminds them about the food pyramid.

“Go back for seconds and thirds if you like,” she said. “Remember the pyramid.”

Sarah Bonner, 9, said she understands the importance of choosing the right foods.

“Because if you don’t, you’ll get fat, and then you’ll get really sick,” she said.

Kirsten Shipley, 10, said the field trip reinforced the importance of healthy eating. “I think that learning it now will be important for our future,” she said.

Each parish nurse’s job is different and depends on the needs of the congregation, Connolly said.

“Essentially, the job is health maintenance, disease prevention,” she explained. “We look after the worried well. And so, it involves programs, phone calls, blood pressure screenings.”

In contrast with most nurses, her job is hands-off when it comes to invasive procedures. “It’s not hands-off for touching and for hugs,” she added.

Another day might find Connolly visiting the home of a member who bumped her head on her car and wanted to know whether she needed to see a doctor. Dorian Taylor, 87, said the parish nurse gives her comfort and assurance.

“Indispensable — that’s the word I have for her. And a blessing,” Taylor said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Before contacting a doctor, Dorian Taylor seeks advice from parish nurse Carol Connolly about a broken toe.

Connolly also arranges courses in yoga and tai chi, a slow-motion form of martial arts that develops balance and strength. Last year, she made more than 1,200 phone calls to church members. In addition, she has held programs on midlife issues, living wills, widowhood and stress.

She also met with church members to lessen some of the confusion about new Medicare drug benefits.

“I think everything that you’ve learned, everything that you’ve experienced (as a nurse), comes together in parish nursing,” she said. “Parish nursing is really the reason we went into nursing. This is the culmination of all the experiences.”

Connolly said her role often is to provide a caring voice to someone who is worried about a possible medical problem. “When you visit somebody that’s worried, you can say, ?I can’t cure what you have, but I can help you heal,’” she said.

“When you visit someone that’s dying, and you sit by their bedside and hold their hand and say a prayer, you hope that makes a difference. I think it does.”

And Connolly said a caring voice and TLC are two of the biggest things a parish nurse can offer.

“It’s not just the medical model,” she said. “It’s your heart, it’s your mind, it’s your body, it’s your spirituality.”

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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