Parish nurse lends listening ear at Advent Lutheran
by Marijke Fakasiieiki
Being a parish nurse is about being an advocate and bringing the community together—intertwining spirit and health.
It's about helping parishioners be there for one another, said Debbie Martin, volunteer parish nurse at Advent Lutheran in Spokane Valley.
Parishioners who knew of other congregations with parish nurses approached her in early 2015 aware she was already doing much of the role, answering members' health questions.
Advent Lutheran sponsored her to go to a one-week parish ministries program in August 2015 at the Tillum Hospital System in Mississauga, Ontario, to intentionally serve as a parish nurse.
"We are to be there for others and help each other. That's what God wants us to do," she said. "It combines helping others as a nurse and as a child of Christ."
When she was five, Debbie's cousin cut her foot. She helped her aunt, a nurse at a community hospital. From that experience, she had a call to be a nurse.
Growing up in Southern California, she graduated from high school early to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). She came to Spokane to develop the spiritual aspect in nursing in studies for a bachelor's at Gonzaga University from 1988 to 1991. She is pursuing a master's in nursing at Grand Canyon University, a Christian University that prioritizes spiritual aspects of nursing.
Her role in the congregation has been limited by COVID. Before COVID, she was available Sundays and Wednesdays, her day off from her work at Pulse, an outpatient cardiac pulmonary rehabilitation center.
Debbie taps into the spiritual side of nursing by listening.
"A nurse listens to patients, tries to save lives and does medical protocols. A parish nurse focuses on spiritual healing that helps the body heal well," she said.
To be a listening ear, she has her number and email available so she can respond to parishioners' questions and concerns. She also does a monthly newsletter on health concerns.
Pre-COVID, the church held classes on diabetes, breast cancer, fall prevention, nutrition, CPR and blood pressure and held a health fair. It connected members to Meals on Wheels and hospital social workers.
Debbie shared health information at Wednesday evening Lenten soup supper services.
"It's important to know we can help each other instead of feeling stressed and hopeless, or waiting to call 911," she said.
She did surveys to learn congregational concerns. Because parishioners' median age was in the 60s then and now is in the 70s, grief was a common concern.
For three years they offered programs on grief that included Hospice and a Sacred Heart chaplain leading programs.
Since COVID, Advent Lutheran has returned to in-person worship, but Debbie has not been back. She got COVID even though she was fully vaccinated.
"I've done newsletters and made phone calls, but have gone to no meetings besides Zoom.
"Contracting it made me realize the vaccine is not 100 percent. I work in an out-patient setting and know it is possible to be a carrier and have no symptoms. Even masking and doing hand hygiene, I contracted it from someone who did not get vaccinated. COVID is serious," said Debbie, who had no fever, chills or body aches, just congested lungs. "I'm thankful I didn't get sicker.
"People should be vaccinated. I would have been hospitalized if I hadn't been vaccinated," she said.
The congregation is following six-foot distancing, wearing masks and not coming in if they have symptoms.
Debbie helped with COVID patients at a Spokane hospital, where she found it heartbreaking as people saw loved ones dying and were unable to say goodbye in person.
While there before her work started again, she asked the manager to have families work with hospital chaplains so they could visit when patients were on their death beds. With the delta variant, they let no one in.
She believes many people have become "more spiritual since this pandemic has hit."
Debbie urges through the church newsletter for members to help those experiencing COVID isolation by bringing them groceries. She said the visiting ministry team can serve communion outside a home or pray with someone by phone or on Zoom.
The church prepares take-out meals alternate Fridays. One member cooks and others deliver to those confined to their homes.
Debbie also offers information to help parishioners navigate medical issues. If she doesn't know something, she finds resources and people who know.
Some resource people who have given presentations include church members—a firefighter, nutritionist, dentist, physical therapist (on preventing falls) and a Medicare and Medicaid advisor.
She helps people fill out the POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) form, listing end-of-life wishes on intubation, CPR, hydration, heroics, breathing tube and more.
The church has held classes on using emergency and first aid kits and its Automatic External Defibrilator (AED), which Debbie said is important to have on site if anything happens.
"My role at Advent Lutheran is advocacy. One parishioner had skin cancer. Another had tremors from medication, not Parkinson's. The tremors went away when he stopped the medication.
"I may take parishioners to medical appointments and provide questions to ask, such as on medications," she said. "They feel good to have an advocate.
"Some people have no family in the area or need advice on medical issues. Some would not ask questions and do not realize side effects of medication they are taking," said Debbie.
"The overall well-being of the community is linked to mind, spirit and body," she said. "Helping with medical issues helps them know that God is looking after them, physically and spiritually, through me."
Debbie went to the doctor with a woman who had cancer. The woman didn't understand the extent her cancer had spread.
"I asked the doctor to explain what it meant for her life, that it was end stage cancer because the parishioner thought she would have surgery and be fine," she said. "I prayed with her and explained what the doctor meant, so she could put her life in order.
She reconnected with family she hadn't seen in a while. Because it was terminal, it was a spiritual journey for parishioners who took her to appointments.
"She accepted that we were there to help, even though she was a strong, independent woman who didn't normally ask for anything," Debbie said.
In that way, this role has built a sense of community for parishioners.
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