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Parish Nurse: Edna Arroyo, Chicago

When Edna Arroyo quit working as a nurse she was determined never to go back. She was tired of “poking and prodding” patients but having no time to talk to them while dealing with doctors, technicians, paperwork and an overwhelming workload. “And they wonder why nurses burn out!” Arroyo said.

But after five years at home, she was called back to nursing -- in a parish. A position came open in her sister’s parish, St. Sylvester’s in Chicago, and after a “constant barrage” of encouragement from her sister, Arroyo applied for the job. She was hired in 1999.

She has encountered a vast difference between her former career in neonatal intensive care and her work at the parish, where the time for a personal contact makes it “nursing as it should be.”

She spends most of her time at the predominantly Hispanic parish in one-on-one consultations in home and hospital visits, helping those with lower incomes find free or low-cost health care. Many of her clients are not parishioners, and many are undocumented immigrants.

“A lot in parish nursing has to do with your presence, just being there for someone and bringing out that faith they have but don’t necessarily correlate with being ill or with the medical profession,” Arroyo told NCR. “They’re used to being given pills -- ‘Take this and you’ll feel better.’ This is looking beyond that and having them guide you to what the crux of their problem is. Because it’s not always physical. A lot of times it has a spiritual base to it.”

Just listening can sometimes be a challenge, she said, “because sometimes you see something that needs fixing, and nurses are terrific at fixing things. This is what we do. We bend over backwards and fix things. But that’s not what this is. Sometimes you have to say, ‘No, I can’t fix it, but I’m here to listen to you.’

“Those situations where someone can be pouring their heart out to you with all this pain, you’re thinking, ‘Lord, guide me now. Tell me when I have to be quiet and when I should speak. The words that you put in there are the words that will give this person comfort.’ When I say that little prayer, it just comes.”

Arroyo, who was raised Catholic until her parents became evangelicals, said that when she started the job, she didn’t have much to offer spiritually. But she has been inspired both by the work and by other parish nurses. “It’s like it says in the Bible, if your faith is the size of a mustard seed -- well, mine was much less than a mustard seed, believe me. I think it’s getting close to a mustard seed now.”

-- Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002