Joan Conerly, RN, has been the parish nurse at St. Brendan Church in Hancock Park since the innovative program — which combines outreach health care and simple companionship to homebound seniors — began in November 2005. “As a nurse what I do is I check their blood pressure and pulse, and I discuss their medications with them,” she told The Tidings on a recent Friday morning. “Generally, seniors have their own doctors, so usually I don’t need to find a doctor for them. But I also discuss their diet if there’s a problem with their sodium intake or something, and also we go over other health issues they might need help with. “And if they need something even outside of health care, then I try to find someone to help them. But the human contact with isolated elderly is important,” she stressed. “The visit is a social thing for them, so I try to spend as much time as I can just talking to them.”St. Brendan’s part-time program, however, provides something most home-health care efforts don’t — spiritual support. Conerly is always accompanied by a Knight or Dame of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, (better known as simply the Order of Malta). The volunteer leads a Communion service, which includes the day’s Scripture readings follow by a discussion of what is the underlying Christian message of the first reading or Gospel. Then the elderly shut-in receives the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.“It just gives them some spiritual support, and I get something from it, too,” said the R.N. “I feel it helps me because it’s so uplifting.”Hands-on serviceDr. Willa Olsen, a retired pediatrician, is a Dame of the Order of Malta who helped start the parish nurse program at St. Brendan’s. “It gives us an opportunity to have hands-on service, because we’re a lay order in the Catholic Church that’s over 900 years old, and our mission is the defense of the faith and service to the poor and sick,” she pointed out. “That’s part of our charism. So we’ve always had a hospitaller part of the Order, and we are very, very active all over the world in medical sort of things.” (The Order was founded by Blessed Gérard in 1048 to care for pilgrims after the First Crusade. Today there are more than 13,500 Knights and Dames around the world.)Olsen has gone out on home visits with Conerly a number of times not as an M.D., but in the capacity of being a volunteer Eucharistic minister. Many have been repeat visits to check up on frail elderly men and women in the parish. “But we have followed people right down to the day they died,” she recalled. “I’ve been there and visited them when they’ve gone to nursing homes. And, occasionally, when they have short spells in the hospital, a volunteer and Joan will go to see them. Joan is a gem, just a real gem. She is warm and friendly and compassionate, and has that kind of rare quality of humility that you don’t see much anymore.”Olsen, in fact, directed the nursing program for six years, until a couple of years ago. But she still acts as the liaison for the urban parish’s annual flu clinic to the Los Angeles County influenza team of the Wilshire-Hollywood area. “That’s one of the big accomplishments at St. Brendan’s,” she said. “November 4th will be our fifth year, and it’s free.” All the volunteers at the clinic are from the Order of Malta.The parish nurse program, from the beginning, targeted homebound seniors, according to Olsen.“What we hoped it would be is really a wellness program,” she said. “Because we found that ‘wellness’ is a difficult and new concept for most people — that it does not only spend its resources treating disease and illness. It attempts to educate, too, and to provide the tools for a person to maintain their health.”‘Win, win situation’Antoinette (“Toni”) Hodgkiss currently runs the parish nurse program as well as St. Brenden’s Homebound Ministry on Sundays, which also takes communion to shut-ins. The 73-year-old longtime parishioner, who received the Cardinal’s Award in 2008, has also gone out on home visits with Conerly. “All the Order people do it a little differently,” the convert to Catholicism explained. “But after the Scripture readings, there’s Communion, which is the main thing. And we go out to see two or three people every Tuesday and Friday, and try to stay about 45 minutes. Many are from my Sunday list, so we know these people well.“And the thing is to try to be uplifting. But Joan will only suggest things. She never says, ‘Do such and such.’ It’s always, ‘Ask your doctor about this because [maybe] your medication doesn’t seem to be doing the job. Your blood pressure is high and you better call him.’ She only gives advice that way.”Msgr. Terrance Fleming, who asked Hodgkiss seven years ago to participate in the then-new nursing program, says that — along with the spiritual support and companionship — is enough. A member of the Knights of Malta himself, the St. Brendan’s pastor jumped at the idea of having a parish nurse at St. Brendan.He notes that the Hancock Park parish has a large number of homebound seniors, with Eucharistic ministers taking Communion to some 20 individuals every Sunday. And he points out that a lot of elderly people who live alone don’t realize their physical or mental health is actually deteriorating. So the program extends outreach to these seniors at the busy parish with 2,800 registered families and Msgr. Fleming the only priest on staff (he also heads the archdiocese’s Mission Office — Society for the Propagation of the Faith — and is president of the Priests’ Council).“So the people in the parish nurse program are another set of eyes and ears for me,” he said. “I know about them because of Joan and the Knights and Dames. So the program’s just worked out. I mean, there’s no downside to it at all. It doesn’t cost me any money. It doesn’t overburden me or other parishioners in ministry here. I’ve got lay people involved.“It’s a win-win situation for me and the parishioners,” he added. “It’s very, very good.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0914/olanurse/{/gallery}