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Parish nurses offer aid to the body and the spirit

Virginia and Oscar Wiegand believe they are alive today because of a new concept in health care and a special woman who volunteered to be a parish nurse.

Retired registered nurse Marion Prinse is one of a growing number of nurses who works with her church and a local medical facility _ in this case St. Anthony's Hospital _ to coordinate health eduction programs and medical screenings for parishioners and the community. A member of Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, she serves as parish nurse, friend and confidant to her fellow parishioners.

"It's a nice way to serve others," Mrs. Prinse said. "And healing has been a part of the Christian church since Jesus."

Mrs. Wiegand has no doubt about the effectiveness of the program and the benefits of Mrs. Prinse's service.

"She saved our lives," she said.

At 77, Mrs. Wiegand is typical of many older women today. She leads an active life, volunteers at Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, and has continued her lifelong journey of learning by stretching herself to obtain a doctorate degree in theology. She has completed her course work and has only the dissertation to finish.

Without the parish nursing program, however, Mrs. Wiegand might not be alive. In November, Mrs. Prinse coordinated a parish medical screening designed to detect blockages in the carotid artery. Such blockages can cause strokes. The parish nursing program had already sponsored numerous mammogram and diabetes screenings, but this was the first carotid artery screening at the church.

"I felt fine," Mrs. Wiegand said. "I had no symptoms, but the test showed that I had a 75 percent blockage. I was a walking time bomb."

As a result of the screening, Mrs. Wiegand immediately underwent surgery to remove the blockage. Just a month later, she would be calling on Mrs. Prinse again. This time it was for her 79-year-old husband, Oscar, who had become ill with a severe case of bronchitis just after Christmas.

"They (his doctors) had given him some medicine, but it wasn't strong enough, so they gave him some more. On New Year's, he was much sicker and began to lose his balance and couldn't even stand up alone.

"I called Marion Prinse at 7:30 that morning and she said she'd be right over."

Mrs. Prinse recognized that Wiegand was in serious condition and likely had electrolytic imbalance. His body was losing potassium, salts and other nutrients. He was immediately admitted into the hospital and placed in intensive care.

"The doctors told me, according to the books, Oscar shouldn't be alive," Mrs. Wiegand said. "I am so very grateful for this program. I think it is all a part of our faith."

The parish nursing program is designed as a prevention and wellness program and does not replace any home health care service. The nurses serve as resources instead of doing any on-hands nursing, Mrs. Prinse said. Although St. Anthony's Hospital is the sponsoring health care facility, patients choose their own doctors and hospitals, said Sister Dolores Eileen Thornhill, a member of the Order of St. Francis and parish health coordinator at St. Anthony's Hospital. She serves as the liaison between the hospital and the faith congregation and works with the parish nurses to set up training sessions, educational programs and health screenings.

She said the parish nurse program was started by a Lutheran minister in Chicago in 1984. Thornhill learned about the program when she was on sabbatical in St. Louis and promptly brought the idea back to St. Anthony's here. The hospital was the first in Florida to begin the program in September 1991, she said.

"When I first learned of this, I thought it was really a prophetic vision for the 21st century," she said. "It brings in the holistic health care approach of mind, body and spirit, which brings in the spirituality aspect of nursing. . . . I see this snowballing throughout the area."

The Rev. Scott Comrie, pastor of Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, said the parish nurse program is an asset to the church.

"Health issues are one of the things we face daily," Comrie said. "I think it is a great resource for a professional to be available for the congregation."

In addition to Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, several other St. Petersburg churches are also involved in the program, she said. There are parish nurses at St. Paul's Catholic Church, St. Peter's Cathedral, Transfiguration Catholic Church and Blessed Trinity Catholic Church. The Elim Seventh-day Adventist Church recently joined the program, and other congregations are expressing interest, she said.

With the help of a $50,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the hospital was able to start the program and provide ongoing training for the nurses as well as liability insurance coverage for the parish nurses. This relieves churches of this financial burden. A parish nurse association has been formed and now has 16 members in this area, she said.

One of the benefits of the parish nurse program is in having a contact person who can check on congregation members after they are discharged from the hospital to make sure they are receiving follow-up care, Sister Dolores said.

"Historically, religion has been involved in health care," she said. "This program is a great bridging back into the church congregation, of neighbor helping neighbor."


For information about the parish nursing program, call Sister Dolores at 825-1100, ext. 4236.