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Eastern region: Celebrating the work of parish nurses

11 May 2016

Lesley Williams has a very busy schedule. One day she may be counselling the bereaved and giving first aid training. The next she may be accompanying vulnerable patients on hospital appointments, helping explain their diagnosis and treatment.

In between she’s visiting people at home, giving important health promotion advice, being an ear to listen.

But what many people may find surprising is that Lesley is not paid for the work she does. As a parish nurse, she provides this service free to the community where she works on the Moreton Hall estate in Bury St Edmunds.

Few people are aware of the parish nurse role. There are only around 90 in the UK, with 14 in East Anglia and six in Suffolk. Some do receive payment while others do not.

Although Lesley is happy working as a volunteer, she said people could see the role as less valuable as it was unpaid and this might need to change if more nurses could be persuaded to help swell their numbers.

“We need more parish nurses and if you want to entice new nurses into this role then the Church need to think about a salary in the future,” she said.

“There are a lot of nurses who are coming to the end of their long span of working. They don’t want to give up all together, and could easily fit into a parish nursing role. It is very rewarding.”

During her career Lesley specialised in care of the elderly and worked for East Coast Community Health Care for 15 years, teaching student nurses at Beccles Hospital, Halesworth, Southwold and Great Yarmouth.

She became aware of the parish nurse role in 2008 when she was asked to mentor a colleague applying for a course on parish nursing.

“I hadn’t heard of it before but as soon as I found out more information I knew it was something I wanted to do in the future,” Lesley said.

Parish nurses must complete a course and build up a portfolio of work before becoming fully qualified for the role. They must sign a contract with minister of the church they are working with and abide by nursing regulations, remaining on the NMC register.

“You have to have indemnity which I have from my RCN membership. I have been a member with the RCN for over 40 years. 

“I was coming to a point in my life when I was spending more time in the car than at the bedside with a student nurse. An opportunity came to fit in the course and in June 2015 I left my NHS post of an education facilitator and I came to Christ Church in Moreton Hall in July 2015.” 

The role is varied covering everything from health promotion, health checks, bereavement assistance and emotional support to sign posting people to health facilities and first aid training with volunteers. The role does not include any invasive work.

Lesley said: “Visiting is a great part of parish nursing, quite often in a person’s home, but sometimes in hospital or in a care of the dying situation. A lot of the community are an older, lonely population.  Sometimes all they need is a few minutes, maybe longer.

“I never mind visiting people when I know it is more for companionship, but over a cup of tea I ask them health questions and can also observe potential issues that need referring on to a GP.  I am an ear to listen and someone to say you need to see a doctor.”

Lesley also runs sessions with people who are grieving.

“Just to be able to sit and listen to people who are grieving is important,” she said.

“District nurses want to be able to do these things, but they have time restraints. I have the time to talk and listen. 

 “A major part of the role is having that time to spend with someone.  Looking at the fullness of the person and their wellbeing and trying to address that.  It’s not about pushing Christianity at someone but being an example of how it can help.  If I sense someone needs spiritual guidance, I will ask if they would like me to say a prayer with them.”

Lesley has started a service called Hospital Connections, seeing people before, during and after a hospital appointment and supporting them through the process.
“It could be something as simple as someone not understanding their diagnosis.  Patients, often older ones, come away from their pre-assessments not always understanding what they have been told.  Again, time restraints of the doctors or nurses might mean they don’t have time to go through everything.  Parish nurses help relieve the pressure of the nurses. They have that time.”

“I had a patient who didn’t understand the title of her diagnosis.  I sat down with them, drew a picture of the anatomy involved and discussed with her what the surgeon might do.  She was relieved to have it explained.

“Another time I had a phone call from a member of the congregation about a couple where the wife had gone into hospital, but she was the main carer of the husband who had dementia.  Both daughters lived away and were taking it in turns to come and care for their father. I individually met with both daughters, each for several hours, and was able to signpost them to day care facilities and explained issues relating to discharge of their mother. 

 “This took up a lot of time and they both expressed their gratitude of how things happened in Suffolk for their parents. They were very impressed with the service. Doctors would not have had the time to do this.”

Lesley is also involved in falls prevention work and leads Otago classes - a gentle form of exercise, designed to help stop falls, strengthen the legs and improve balance – when the instructor is away.

She was afraid she might miss the students when she left her previous job, but finds teaching is still a major part of her work.

“I am still teaching people now, just with a different hat on.  Instead of thinking this is an academic situation, I have to think this is an elderly lady who doesn’t understand something – this is where my teaching comes in,” Lesley said.

“I am always learning; I might not know what the person is asking but I always say we can research together.  It’s a supportive role; listening, talking, advising.

“I love the role of Parish nurse and will be one until I finally stop nursing altogether.  It is such a diverse role; you never know what is around the corner.”

Page last updated - 15/06/2018