Our patron saint Grand Duchess Elisabeth Romanov dedicated her life to the service of God and the people. Sister Irina Tsegelnikova from the visiting nurse service of Saint Elisabeth Convent tells us how Saint Elisabeth's example had inspired her and the other sisters.
Could you give us some background about the visiting nurse service? Who is it for, and how is it different from the other providers of home care services?
In Belarus, there is a fair number of organisations that provide home-based care for the elderly and disabled. However, even people from outside the Church prefer to entrust the care of their loved ones to us. Many contact us on recommendation from their friends and acquaintances.
Our work is grounded in our faith, and this means a different set of priorities. It is not just a livelihood for us, but a service. We do receive a salary, but our primary motive is to help the suffering. We join the service to give our clients our hearts. Everything we do we do in good faith and the people understand this well.
We are not a large team. We are about 30, not counting the volunteers. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to take all the requests. We look after bed-ridden patients, the frail and the elderly. Many have mental disorders and dementia. Most cannot get support from their families because they live too far, or have odd working hours.
What is the job of a visiting nurse? What duties is she expected to perform?
The work of a visiting nurse is intense and physically demanding. They feed and cook for their clients; they help them wash; they roll them over to prevent bedsores, or treat the bedsores. They do their jobs well and treat everyone fairly. They feel that they must give their clients their best and help them live in dignity.
My client's name is Valentina. God willing, she is going to celebrate her 90th birthday in May. Her daughter died of cancer. I have been caring for her for more than two years. I have fully adjusted my daily schedule to her needs. We start with hygiene. Then we have breakfast - Valentina has a good appetite. After breakfast, we say the morning prayers and read from the Gospel. Afterwards, it is time to make lunch. All my days look alike. I wash up and then cook dinner, we say the prayer rule, discuss the spiritual readings, and go to bed. I am busy from morning to evening.
How does one become a visiting nurse? What kind of training does a visiting nurse complete?
The first sisters to join our team trained at the Charitable Work Centre of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. Some have completed training at the Belarusian State Medical University. In later years, the new sisters trained with the professional nurses during practical sessions. All the visiting nurses have attended lectures in psychiatry at the care home for the elderly and the disabled. We never stop learning.
Most sisters have been on the team from the beginning, and only some joined more recently. We invite candidates to observe the work of a visiting nurse. At this point, they may begin to have doubts. Some candidates think that all they will need to do little more than comfort their clients and hold their hand. The reality shocks them, and they walk away several hours later. But a person of faith seeks God and lives by His commandments; to him, humility is a great virtue.
Perhaps this is the kind of attitude that God expects from us as His servants. At some point, I decided to change my life and become His servant. When I knew about the visiting nurse service, I was the chief accountant at a private company. I left my job without hesitation and joined the service. They sent me for an internship at a hospice. I had not seen so many terminal patients in my life. I got an idea of what I might expect as a visiting nurse, but I was not afraid. My only worry was about having enough skill to do my job.
When a visiting nurse takes a new client, what should they expect?
They should not ask themselves, ‘Do I find my work easy or difficult?’ There is simply no room for this kind of thinking.
I come to my client with an open heart and an open mind. I do not expect them to like me or accept me immediately with open arms. They need time and space to build trust, especially if they have had a negative experience before. They will be watching you and stay alert. Also, many clients will not accept that there are many things that they cannot do without others' help. We should use all one's tact and intuition so that our clients will not see themselves as a burden. We must reassure them that there is nothing shameful in asking for help. They have lived a long life and worked hard enough, and can afford to accept some assistance. Little by little, the trust will grow, and pride will subside. But do not expect the client to trust you immediately. You should earn their trust first.
Have you ever thought about changing your job as a visiting nurse and doing something different? Why or why not?
It is possible to change any job but not this one. Sisters do not leave their clients but remain with them to the end. We become attached to one another. You cannot abandon a needy person like you would put aside a book after losing interest in it.
Sometimes, we become like family to one another. For example, I have come to know the life history of my client Valentina. Older people find it rewarding to share their life memories. It is also interesting for us to hear about their lives.
I pray for my clients who have departed to God. I visit their graves. I mourn their death and miss them a lot.
Work at the visiting nurse service teaches us patience, perseverance and humility like no other. Our clients need us, but we also need them. Honestly, I do not know who needs each other more. Our clients are like a mirror. We recognise in them some character features that we never suspected in ourselves. Our closeness is a God-given opportunity to discover our weaknesses and learn some introspection. On reflection, we come to understand that this encounter was providential.
When we genuinely want to serve God and the people, He will help us along. My coming to the visiting nurse service was my answer to His call. I never considered changing my job, not for a moment.
The sisters and volunteers of the Visiting Nurse Service do an extremely demanding and often invisible work on a daily basis: they look after severely ill persons who have no one else to turn to.