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Parish nurse meets both physical and spiritual needs

By Virginia de Leon

As parish nurse for the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Marianne Harrington promotes healing in her church and the community.

Marianne Harrington
Marianne Harrington

She not only assists members with medical needs but also provides emotional support and educates them about the connections of body, mind and spirit.

“My job is to show the relationship between faith and healing and how important a healthy body is to a person’s spiritual life,” said Marianne.

For 10 years, she has volunteered her skills as a registered nurse and her aptitude for pastoral care to help meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the cathedral’s parishioners.

She’s one of several nurses in the area with training as a parish nurse.

In the mid-1990s, the Most Rev. William Skylstad, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane, brought together people from various denominations as well as community leaders to discuss the possibility of a parish-nursing program.

Marianne was one of about 20 nurses who took the first parish nursing class offered in 1998 by Gonzaga University and the Providence Center for Faith and Healing.

According to the Providence Center for Faith and Healing’s website, the mission of the parish nurse is “the intentional integration of the practice of faith with the practice of nursing so people can achieve wholeness in, with and through the community of faith in which the parish nurse serves.”

In addition to her day job as a full-time nurse for Spokane Public Schools, Marianne volunteers about eight hours each week as the cathedral’s parish nurse—serving as health educator, personal-health counselor and also as a community liaison.

She provides health presentations at the church, trains volunteers who are new to pastoral care and connects parishioners with community organizations and social service agencies.

Whenever people have a question about nutrition and exercise, need help checking their blood pressure or are suffering from back pain or any kind of ache or illness, they may call Marianne at home or find her during coffee hour after Sunday worship.

As the parish nurse, she also visits the sick and elderly in the hospital, their homes or nursing homes—providing prayer and comfort in times of crisis.

“I always ask if they want to pray,” said Marianne, a member of the cathedral for nearly 25 years. “I’m there medically, but I’m also there spiritually.  It’s hard to leave your faith behind when you’re dealing with a crisis.”

Faith is especially important to those who are at the end of life, she said.

“People are more humble and more open to spirituality when they’re dying,” Marianne said, noting their desire to know God is with them.

Over the years, people at the cathedral have depended on her presence and advice.  She’s there for them when they are sick and accompanies them home from the hospital. When there’s a medical issue, many call her at home.

Some of the elderly have even asked her to be with them as they journey toward the end of their lives.

Older parishioners, especially those who don’t have children or relatives in the area, often turn to her when they’re in need. Some suffer from grief after losing a spouse.  Others experience a sense of loss as they move from the houses they have lived in for decades and transition into nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

Sometimes when people have experienced medical problems in church, Marianne has come to their assistance, assessing the situation and calling the paramedics, said the Very Rev. Bill Ellis, the cathedral’s dean.

“Once paramedics arrived, she was able to speak knowledgeably with them about the symptoms and set them on the right course of treatment immediately,” he said.

On two occasions, she identified when an individual was experiencing dementia and quickly sought help.

Bill has also accompanied her when she has assessed whether a person could continue to live at home without assistance

“She is more able to know what to look for in situations like that than I,” he said.

Growing up in a Catholic household in Springfield, Mass., Marianne never imagined she would become a nurse.

“I never liked blood or vomit or anything like that,” she recalled.

After volunteering at a Catholic hospital in her senior year of high school, she was moved by the selflessness of nuns and nurses who cared for the sick and dying.

“Everyone was loving, compassionate and prayerful,” she said.  “It was this warm, nurturing place where people were taken care of both physically and spiritually.”

She wanted to be part of that.

Marianne attended Mercy Hospital School of Nursing and took classes at Northeastern University in Boston.  As a nurse over the years, she worked in obstetrics, in operating rooms, as an assistant to a neurosurgeon and with cancer patients.

When she moved to Spokane in 1982, she took a break from her job to rear two children. When they became teenagers, she started working for Spokane Public Schools. 

For the last few years, she has worked with medically at-risk children in several Spokane elementary schools.

Marianne, who became a member of the Episcopal Church in 1976, said her faith compels her to work as a nurse—both at St. John’s and in the schools.

She begins and ends each day with a prayer, asking God for guidance as she serves in the medical field and at her church.

“My work is so fulfilling,” Marianne said. “It’s an honor and privilege for me to be there for these people.”

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Copyright © April 2008 - The Fig Tree