Cami Jo Tice-Harouff said she was called to help serve parishioners and students who attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church and School in Longview.
Tice-Harouff is a registered nurse who works for the Catholic Charities of East Texas, which is an organization affiliated with the Diocese of Tyler.
“It’s what I’m called to do. Earlier in my career, I started doing mission trips to Third World countries. ... I’ve always partnered with faith communities to reach people who have medical needs,” Tice-Harouff said. “I started here in this position in January and I work very part time, so the days I do work are very busy ... with a lot of people to see, and I also work with our school.”
Tice-Harouff, who also teaches college nursing courses online, also spends her time visiting “shut-ins” and referring patients to area health care facilities when necessary.
On Monday, she conducted vision and hearing screenings at St. Mary’s Catholic School. The school doesn’t need a full-time nurse, so she helps out “as part of parish outreach,” she said.
“In my role, there are a lot of what we call vulnerable populations — our older and very young (parishioners). We do have kids in our school that don’t make it to the doctor, so they need somebody looking out for them,” Tice-Harouff said.
Catholic Charities of East Texas started the parish nurse program in 2012 to give “the poorest of the poor ... health care access that they need,” coordinator Jennie Pierce said. The program is nondenominational, or inclusive to churches that are not Catholic, she said.
About 12 nurses work in East Texas churches, serving the area between Texarkana and Nacogdoches, she said. In addition to helping keep parishioners’ minds and bodies healthy, parish nurses also help their spirits, something Pierce said can’t be catered to in traditional health care facilities.
The nurses usually work for their home church after establishing a ministry with their pastor, Pierce said. There’s no cost to parishioners who are seen by a parish nurse, she said.
Every parish nurse’s service is different, but their duties can range from starting grief support groups to hosting health fairs, said Erika Ponce, parish nurse at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Longview. Ponce also works full time as a nurse at a health care facility.
“You can’t give medical advice as a nurse just running around because there’s no way of documenting it, and as a parish nurse, I can document it. I have a documentation program that I can share with a doctor ... with the patient’s permission,” she said.
Pierce said the Tyler-based organization has used church bulletins to solicit Catholic nurses. She said non-Catholic nurses, especially recent retirees, are more responsive to newspaper ads. Tice-Harouff and Ponce said they inquired about the program after seeing an announcement in their churches’ bulletins.
“I was looking for extra things to do to help around the church and was like, ‘Well, I’m a nurse. Let me see what I can do,’” Ponce said.
Nurses are required to be at least a registered nurse, preferably with a bachelor’s degree, and attend church regularly, Pierce said. She said candidates complete an online application before interviewing with her and Catholic Charities of East Texas Executive Director Kathy Harry.
Pierce, along with the applicant, will meet with the nurse’s pastor to explain how the program works, she said. The pastor would “set priorities” and sign an agreement committing to provide resources for the nurse.
The nurses are paid through grant funds and anonymous donations, Pierce said. They’re not paid “a big salary ... but it does help with transportation (and) supplies,” she said.
Ponce said she does most of her medical consultations by phone, but her work includes visits to people such as Diana Gonzalez and her 18-month-old son Angel, whom she checks in on at home about once a month, she said.
Angel had a heart problem at birth that’s been corrected, but it still makes Gonzalez “a little more nervous as a mom,” Ponce said. Because Gonzalez’s primary language is Spanish, Ponce said she also helps translate for the mother.
“Her family knows me,” Ponce said, translating for Gonzalez as she explained how the nurse helps. “They’ve known me at church for a long time and she feels that because she knows me, she’d rather ask me first because she doesn’t want to feel dumb going to the ER. ... Nobody wants to go to the ER unless they really have to, but she doesn’t want to be a bad mom and not go either.”
Gonzalez said she feels more comfortable asking Ponce for advice before going to the doctor.
“There’s been times where I’ve gone over to their house on the weekend and said, ‘He’s going to need to go to the doctor on Monday.’ She’ll get a medicine and the medicine sometimes has instructions in English, and she wants to make sure she can read it,” Ponce said.
Ponce said she works closely with Tice-Harouff to refer parishioners to local physicians and specialized care facilities.
“We have a lot of people that frequent the emergency department and they really wouldn’t have to if they had better care,” Tice-Harouff said. “I do a lot of referrals, whether that’s getting people to treatment, getting people to psych/mental health professionals (or) getting people to just check their blood pressure.”
As nurses working for a faith-based organization, Tice-Harouff said they are charged to take care of “the whole individual.”
“When I go out to meet someone and I notice that they’re maybe in subpar housing, maybe they don’t have transportation. I want to meet them where they’re at and let them know that we’re here to love them, serve them and we care about all of their needs — not just their physical needs. We care about their whole being, so we pray with patients,” she said.
Parish nurses can close the gap between the doctor’s office and the parishioner’s home, Ponce said. Tice-Harouff said patients are sometimes lost when they’re treated at a health care facility, which can be “very busy and fast-paced.”
“They don’t know what’s going on. ... They’re thrown papers (and hear), ‘Here, go home. Be safe. Don’t come back unless you’re going to die,’” Tice-Harouff said. “Being able to give spiritual care means understanding where people are at and guiding them. ... A lot of people get into a spiritual crisis when they’re ill. ... They need somebody who will sit and be compassionate while they go through that.”
When parishioners are healing, Ponce said parish nurses are there so they “don’t have to do it alone.”
“Sometimes there are illnesses that can’t be cured,” she said. “I let them know I’m here so if they’re lost in their medical diagnoses, there’s someone they can call. If they’re by themselves and they want someone to go to the doctor with them, I can go with them. I can let them know that they’re not alone.”
Ponce said she ultimately chose to be a parish nurse in order to be an example for her children.
“If I show my kids how I incorporate my faith in my daily activities and in my way of serving the Lord with the gifts he gave me, they will see ways to start using their gifts and helping in the community,” she said.
Tice-Harouff encourages prospective parish nurses to use their skills during mission trips before applying for the program.
“At the end of the day, being a part of something that’s bigger than who you are individually is very rewarding,” she said.
For more information about the parish nursing program, call the Catholic Charities of East Texas at (903) 258-9492.