'A Prayer of Gratitude to God for the Gift of this Ministry'
Editor: In her heart-warming article below, Karen Scheer rsm, MD, shares with us the events of one January day this year. We meet some of her clients— "Mary", "Peggy" and "Laura"— and come to understand why, as Karen puts it, she is 'able to be a Mercy physician and give “in the care of the sick, great tenderness above all things." '
On a bright, cold January morning, I start my day meeting my newest patient. Instead of driving to an office, I get in my car and drive the 10 miles or so to where she lives. “Mary” is an 85-year-old who is unable to leave her apartment due to chronic back pain and spends most of her time in her wheelchair. I spent some time getting to know her story. Up until a few years ago she was quite active, volunteered at the library and senior center and was a tap dancer. After a series of events, including a fire and a fall which shattered her spine, she is homebound. Her world now is a two bedroom apartment that she shares with her daughter. She is unable to go to a health care office, so I travel to her. I have the privilege of entering her home, seeing the photographs of family, the books she likes to read, meeting her family, evaluating her physical space and making sure she has what she needs to “age in place”.
After spending 1½ hours with Mary, I make my way to my other patients. I visit every 4-6 weeks, keeping regular tabs on them, monitoring chronic conditions and heading off problems to prevent hospitalizations. My next appointment is with "Peggy", a 73 year-old who is bedbound after suffering two strokes that left her with right-sided paralysis. She is fortunate to have the resources to afford 24/7 support-at-home aides and live in a clean, warm home. Most of my patients do not have this level of support and rely on family or the kindness of strangers to provide their diaper changes, baths, food, laundry and company.
“Laura” is a 59 year-old with schizophrenia and agoraphobia, who does well when she takes her medications. I call ahead so she can throw the key out into the snow and I can let myself into her basement apartment. Laura is a ward of the State of Pennsylvania and has a court-appointed attorney who manages her finances and makes sure she has mental health services. She, like most of us, does not like change and today I have to tell her that her lab work shows that she has developed diabetes. She asks me what can she do and her face falls when I tell her about the mainstay of treatment for diabetes being diet and exercise. She has no control over her food which is delivered by “meals-on wheels” and exercise is all but impossible when she needs a cane to keep her balance. I tell her not to worry, we will figure it out together- and that bring a smile to her face.
I see many more people just like Mary, Peggy and Laura. My patients vary from a 29 year-old with advanced multiple sclerosis to a woman whose 102 year-old knees cannot support her weight anymore. In between patients, I hop on the remote server, write up my patient visits, return patient/family phone calls and review lab reports- all from the comfort of my car.
I became a physician in 2005 and completed my residency in Family Medicine in 2008. By 2012, I had worked in a couple of outpatient medical office settings and was not satisfied with my work as a Mercy physician. I thought that there had to be something out there that would be the right blend of Mercy and Medicine. I kept thinking “where would Catherine be?” If there was a ministry out there for me, I was not seeing it and I asked God to help me find the ministry I was meant to do as a Mercy Physician.
Well, Divine Providence came through once again. (I keep forgetting- I just need to make myself available!) I knew of Holy Redeemer Health System, an independent hospital which provides a full spectrum of services from acute care to nursing home care to palliative and hospice care. I went in to talk with the director of ambulatory services and she asked what it was I was looking for. I shared about being a Sister of Mercy and my vision of as a Mercy physician as a ministry treating the whole person, to form relationships and make a difference in the lives of my patients.
Her eyes lit up. She told me that Holy Redeemer had identified a need - patients who were falling through the cracks because they were unable to return to their primary care provider due to life-changing illnesses and had become homebound. Would I be interested in going to visit patients in their homes? My eyes and then my heart lit up! I told her that it would be the perfect ministry for a Sister of Mercy.
That is how it began. In the tradition of my Mercy foremothers, the “walking nuns”, I have become the slightly more modern version- “the driving nun”! I grab my black bag, my lunch and plug the first appointment into my GPS and I am off! Every day is a different. I get to see people in their own environments, meet their loved ones, see firsthand their life situations and what possible barriers to care they might experience.
Much of my work is listening: to the patient- how they came to be here, about the loss of a spouse, or the work they used to do; to the families- grief that their mother is no longer “here” or the struggles that they are experiencing trying to take care of their loved one at home. Some of my work is helping people to transition from primary care to palliative care or hospice. A lot of my time is spent counseling families around next steps for their loved ones.
Every day, I go out and send a prayer of gratitude to God for the gift of this ministry. In the tradition of Catherine McAuley, I am able to be a Mercy physician and give “in the care of the sick, great tenderness above all things."
Messages to: Karen Scheer rsm, MD
Karen Scheer rsm, MD is a member of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and lives and ministers in the Philadelphia Area. She is a Family Medicine physician who visits her patients as a House Calls physician. She is also serves as the US Coordinator of Focus of Haiti, a grassroots organization within the Institute to address ongoing needs in partnership with the community of Gros Morne, Haiti.