Three years have passed since the launch of the Visiting Nurse Service of our St Elisabeth Convent with the blessing of the Very Rev Andrey Lemeshonok, the spiritual father of St Elisabeth Convent, in July 2014. The nurses have already accumulated a lot of experience. Now they plan to build a residential care facility for the elderly. However, it is but a plan. Nowadays they hardly manage to cope with the influx of phone calls that they receive every single day: there are plenty of those who require visiting nurses to take care of their bedridden and frail elderly relatives in Minsk, like in any other big city.
Anna Kovalevskaya, who was in charge of the Visiting Nurse Service, together with other volunteers who chose this difficult path of ministry, had to learn a lot. The nurses even had to travel to Moscow and Saint Petersburg in order to acquire medical knowledge and special skills. Mere compassionate impulses won’t suffice: every day you spend at your patient's bed is a test of your mercy and perseverance. There isn't much hot air here. Those who have become visiting nurses used to work in various other spheres. They used to be accountants, teachers, salespersons, psychologists, mathematicians, radiophysicists, managers, choreographers, engineers, metalworkers, IT specialists, and even manicurists. Now they are united by a common cause. They get together every week in order to discuss new issues, share their experiences, and pray. You can hear many interesting stories during those meetings… I don't want to delve into the stats and create something like a report of the work that has been done during the last three years (given that there are much more requests for help than the available volunteers). While I was writing this article, the Visiting Nurse Service saw a change of its head sister, and some of the patients under the care of the Service died…
What I would like to do is to record and give voice to the unique experience that the sisters (and brothers) of mercy have in dealing with weakness caused by advanced age. I would like to wrap my head about the reasons why people have to be old, ill, and feeble, finally becoming "glory-less and ugly". Someone likened an old person to a dry and lifeless driftwood. When I read it, it seemed to me that an old person is more like a rugged muddy seashell inside of which there is a precious pearl that is his soul, which grows slowly but steadily.
Helena: I perceive each disabled person as if he wasn't disabled at all. Alexander Ivanovich had a stroke, and now one of his arms is already functioning. He forgets about the other one. I say “Hello”, and he extends the functioning arm to greet me. “We've already shaken that hand. I'm interested in shaking the other hand, too.” — “It doesn't work.” — “Who told you that?” And I'll make him stretch the other hand until he actually does it.
Natalia: Before we do anything, any procedure, we are obliged to tell our patients about it and warn them in advance so that they could be ready. We can praise them after the fact but we must never turn them into little and helpless children. That is, we must always let them feel that they are in full control. Otherwise, we can prevent them from doing anything and kill their desire to do anything by doing everything for them.
Joanna: Anna Nikolayevna had a stroke. Her family wasn't accustomed to sentiments. She needs tenderness and love so badly! Not long ago I wanted to touch her for no reason, not because I was leaving. She was sitting in a chair. I looked into her eyes, and felt as if I was looking at my mum. I asked her, "Can I kiss your eyes?" She replied, "Of course, you can…" She raised her half-paralysed arm and hugged me. She always hugs me when I leave. This time, I felt her tenderness: she looked at me with the eyes of my own mother, who had also been called Anna…
Anna Kovalevskaya: There was an old lady whose only joy was to come to a church shop of St Elisabeth Convent and talk with the sister. She asked the sister for help. We visited her and got to know her. She was so… cool! She could play the guitar and sing; she knew many proverbs and funny sayings. However, she was very weak because she was over 80. We appointed Sister Anna to be her visiting nurse. Her duties were to clean the old lady's house, to bring her food supplies, and to take her outdoors.
If you come to this old lady just for a while, just to see her, it's impossible to leave her quickly. She asks, "Are you leaving already?" And there is so much sadness and disbelief in her eyes.
Recently, she felt very ill due to acute pancreatitis. Sister Anna skipped everything she had been doing, came to that old lady, called the ambulance, and was visiting the old lady in the hospital twice a day, although no one requested it from her… We feel as if these old ladies are our own relatives.
Irina: Maria Ivanovna was very hard to deal with physically. She was going through a difficult time in her life - and in the lives of those who were near. She was absolutely unable to move, and it meant difficulties in providing basic hygiene and treating bedsores. Her personality was also hard to deal with, no doubt.
Anna Kovalevskaya: We discussed that situation with Father Andrew, the spiritual father of St Elisabeth Convent, and decided that we had to continue looking after her until she died. Irina did not only look after Maria Ivanovna until she died but she also saw her off to her last journey: she attended Maria Ivanovna's funeral service and went to her burial at a remote cemetery. She read the Psalter by the grave, too. When Maria Ivanovna was buried, we felt so easy!
Irina: The feeling was amazing: it was a combination of light sadness and tranquillity. I did not feel burdened. Naturally, you get used to each one of your patients. You let them into your heart and they become a part of your life.
Natalia: I have felt a lot of grace in my heart lately. I did not experience anything like that before. I don't know to whom my previous life belonged and whom I served. I will look into it later. Right now, I have the feeling that I can finally serve God and do something that pleases him. I feel great because I have an opportunity to serve people like myself...
Joanna: It was not an accident that God brought me to this service. I enjoy doing my obedience. I burst into my patient's flat and wash my hands quickly. My patient sits or lies in her bed, and all I want is to kneel down in front of her to be on the same level with her…
Natalia: By the way, we are trained to work on our knees for the sake of our own safety, first of all. We must be always up and running. There must not be any case when you work hard one day and are completely exhausted the next day. We practise the skills that we will use on duty in the gym of the Christian School run by St Elisabeth Convent. Given that the conditions that we have to face are not remotely proper ones (there are few people who can afford special beds), we work on our knees in order to be on an equal level with the patient, preserve our own health, and help our patients to the best of our abilities.
Larissa: Elderly people lack human interaction. When we visited Rimma Dmitrievna, we talked with her husband, too. He was relieved to be able to tell someone about their life in Bashkiria and how they did subsistence farming there. People miss out on a lot of things because they don't talk with elderly people. Do grandchildren really know what their grandparents are like and what they think?
Victor: We get what we lack — patience, mercy, love, meekness, faith, hope, peace, and joy — when we help the ill. This ministry rescues me from the temptations that surround me, from idleness, from sinfulness. It is so important to stand strong in faith and accept everything that the Lord gives!
Irina: You come to a new patient, and you just don't know what kind of person he or she is, and what his or her health condition is like. As soon as you come, you see it with your own eyes. You cannot just leave that person. You must help him or her: feed him, dress him, and wash him. There is no one except you with that person. How can you leave him? Your conscience won't allow you to. Today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow — you've got to do something every day. I go home thinking about what else I can do to help more effectively.
Helena: Interestingly enough, when you work hard in the office and then help other people as a volunteer, you go home so inspired. It turns out that as much as you exhaust yourself, you get a lot of power back in return.
My relative once asked me, “Helena, where do you get so much vigour, why are you so energetic?” This ministry of a visiting nurse gives me the strength to live and help others, and it's enough for everyone I meet.
Irina: One old lady used to meet me with the following words, “Irina, long time no see. It was God who brought you to me.” Then she would go on to say, “I have nothing to give you back. I will sew something for you, rest assured!” In fact, she gave me a whole lot of things. When you come there, you have to do so much! When you leave, you feel the wings behind your back. You feel energised. You feel that there is Someone else with you.
Anna Kovalevskaya: There were many people who called us and wanted to work in our service. Interestingly enough, those who did not believe in God and did not take Communion just left us sometime later…
Helena: The most important aspect of our ministry is our faith in the Lord. It empowers us. Humane attitude towards human beings is the second most important requirement for our ministry. For example, you have to do hygiene procedures for a female patient. You should prepare her softly, in a delicate manner, so as not to hurt or insult her. She is a human being, too.
Joanna: Our task is not only to clean the bedpan and do the house. We also need to deal with their souls.
Helena: We are not just attendants. We do not only change their nappies. A visiting nurse must feel the other person. The first thing we do before going out to our ministry is praying for the Lord to bless us and show to us what that person needs at a given moment and what we should say to him, how we should approach him.
We ought to treat these other people like ourselves. Nadezhda Konstantinovna's relatives found an attendant for her when she was in the hospital; she was crying as she told me how that nurse looked after her, "I want to eat, and I need the plate to be placed on my chest while feeding. She fed me from my side. I complained that I was uncomfortable with it, and she replied, ‘You are wrong. You feel fine.’” Then, when she changed her nappies — mind you, the old lady had just undergone a surgery on her broken hip bone, and she was running a high temperature and she also had urethritis — the nurse grabbed her by the painful side. “I told her I felt pain. She dismissed it, ‘You can't feel pain!’ Then I felt pain in my heel, ‘Please look at my heel, what's going on?’ — ‘No-no, everything's fine.’ When a surgeon saw me, it turned out to be bedsore on my heel.” As a matter of fact, the old lady was discharged from the hospital in a severe condition.
When I first came to Nadezhda Konstantinovna, she was crying. We had a conversation with her, and she came back to life. When I visited her the following week, I saw that she was shining: you just have to say a couple of words to support a person, and they will feel a whole lot better.
Irina: You cannot easily tell what is most important in our ministry. There are many important aspects to it. Paths that lead to God are different, and so is the meaning of ministry — each person has his own. Most importantly, this choice must be informed.
The fact that our ministry teaches us to be humble is crucial.
Victor: Most importantly, you must be ready to sacrifice yourself for the salvation of your own soul and for the sake of your neighbour. And, of course, for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Interview by Helena Nasledysheva
November 24, 2017
A Visiting Nurse Service was set up in the summer of 2014. It combines spiritual nurturing, psychological support, and everyday assistance for bedridden elderly patients.