HHC Profiles

Parish nurse coordinator bridges gap with area churches

By Elissa Bass

In churches around Fairfield County – Catholic, Protestant, Haitian, Hispanic and Russian Orthodox — nurses are tending to patients. 

Since 1992, the St. Vincent’s Medical Center (SVMC) Parish Nurse Program has brought healthcare into places of worship, touching the lives of many who might be hard to reach otherwise. Each participating nurse from SVMC practices in his or her own parish in outreach that emphasizes “intentional care of the person’s spirit.” 

Marilyn Faber, RN, HN-BC, CHTP, coordinates the program that is also called Faith Community Nursing. It is one of only two in the state, and the only one affiliated with Hartford HealthCare. She has 220 nurses practicing in 80 parishes as “unpaid professionals.” Many are retired, and do this as a way to stay involved in their community and healthcare. 

“These nurses are part of their own churches, their own church families,” Faber said. 

Typically, they provide healthcare education to the parish, as well as such services as blood pressure screenings, referrals to medical, social service or community resources. They run health fairs and include health news in church bulletins. 

The program needed to refocus when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in 2020, closing places of worship. 

“It was difficult because so many of the nurses were doing monthly blood pressure screenings, and they had a lot of people who went every month,” Faber said. “In addition to the pressure check, it was a chance to have a conversation, for the nurse to be a listener for these people. After the shutdown, we had to figure out how to stay in touch, and many did direct outreach, making regular phone calls to check in.” 

The team collaborated with the CT Faith Leaders Collaborative which was advising the governor and producing guidelines for the safe reopening of churches. The parish nurses were tasked with ensuring the latest COVID information went into church bulletins so parishioners had the facts. They also helped places of worship meet guidelines and safety protocols. 

When vaccine rolled out, parish nurses again provided information to their communities, helped parishioners get appointments, and, in some churches, scheduled vaccine clinics to reach vulnerable populations. 

The challenge going forward, Faber said, will be reconnecting. 

“We have not physically been with these people for more than a year,” she said. “We need to, once again, be that listening ear, spend time and let them know someone cares.” 

Marilyn Faber, RN, coordinator of the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Parish Nurse Program, center in white, performs a “blessing of the hands” ceremony for program participants. 

Anchoring the IOL with a friendly smile

By John Tajeda

The layout and architecture of the Institute of Living (IOL) campus offers a feeling of community, that when passing someone on a path, they’ll know your name and be quick with a hello. This is especially true when standing next to Michael Mathews. 

“Hey, Mike,” said one. 

“Hi, Mike, how’s it going?” asked another. 

This pattern gets repeated over and over. Strolling with Mathews is like walking with the school’s star quarterback. Who is he? His title is unit leader supervisor, although he’s not even sure what that means. 

“The only things I don’t handle are the clinical aspects of operations,” he said. “When I started here, we didn’t even have computers in our department, and now I spend all my time on it with a lot of HR functions. It’s hard to describe, there’s a lot of variety.” 

Mathews has been part of the IOL fabric for 21 years. When he started, he thought he landed his dream job, turning the floundering greenhouse into a functional horticultural program. 

“I wanted to be a landscaper and run my own business, but realized it wasn’t the easiest or most profitable way to make a living. Initially, it was just running the greenhouse. They wanted to have it operational, and it was a mess,” he said. 

Soon, Mathews had it up and running, initially as a therapeutic setting for clients before he turned it into a retail greenhouse that, with administration’s help, yielded a vocational program for those in treatment to work on and off campus. 

“We took youth from the community after-school programs to have them maintain plants and such around the city. I had to recruit students and talk to teachers,” Mathews said. 

Despite such success, an inconsistent labor pool and economic downturn meant the greenhouse was on its way to being shuttered again. But, for Mathews, that’s not how the story ends. He finished a bachelor’s degree and MBA, and took a position in IOL operations, quickly becoming the right hand of the person in charge. 

“He’s operations. He goes back and forth with everything from grounds to buildings to furniture to phones to broken computers,” said Annetta Caplinger, VP of clinical operations at the IOL. “A lot of times, people will call about something that has to be taken care of, and I say ‘I will send you to Mike.’ He makes it so.” 

Caplinger isn’t the only one who tells people to “ask Mike” when in need. The simple phrase resonates across the IOL. The challenge for Mathews is being able to juggle it all. 

“The role really is to support administration. It doesn’t have a ton of decision-making, but it’s the glue that holds everything together, like the man behind the curtain,” he said. “I handle all the stuff that doesn’t have a process, or there isn’t someone else to do it.” 

If the IOL truly is a family, Mathews is the uncle you lean on. As long as there are people like Mathews keeping everyone grounded, the family stays intact. 

“That’s what we are all here for. Whether you are doing it in one role or another, you are doing it. I don’t have patient contact anymore but I am still supporting what everyone else does and that’s the part that keeps me going. I can’t imagine leaving. I would be broken up,” Mathews said. 

Mike Matthews is a friendly, familiar face on the grounds of the Institute of Living. 

Photo by Chris Rackoczy