For Grace Foster, 60, an Ellicott City resident who cares for her invalid husband at home, Ruth Bell has become more than a helping hand.

Bell, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Nursing, said she is among 1,200 nurses nationwide who are working in a new field -- parish nursing.


"The parish nurse is adding a new dimension to a caring ministry," said Sandra Thomas, associate minister at the Glen Mar United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, where Bell is a member.

"It's a way to better care for people, and it opens the door to people who couldn't come in (to the church) otherwise," said Thomas.


Only six weeksinto her job, Foster says, Bell has already made a pronounced difference.

"Ruth has helped me to cope with things . . . she is so dependable," Foster said. "She makes me feel stronger emotionally. I feellike I have known her for so long, and that she is my best friend."

Bell works on a part-time basis providing various health services.One advantage is the amount of time available to listen to people and teach them about their health.

"People can feel that there is enough time to ask whatever it is they may want to ask," she said. "If I don't have the answer, I will find it."

Bell and Thomas both saythey expect the idea to catch on as people seek options to the high cost of traditional medical care. Georgetown University has begun a Parish Health Nursing program for its graduate students, but so far Bell is one of only three parish nurses in the Baltimore/Washington area.

The program evolved from an experimental project begun in Illinois in 1983. Granger E. Westberg, the Lutheran minister who founded the project, wanted to provide nursing services in conjunction with a church ministry.

"Churches were the ones who started the hospitals, nursing homes and other medical institutions," said Thomas. "This is a way to get the churches back into health care."

Bell mentionedthe idea to Thomas a year ago and got an enthusiastic response, and the church started its own parish nurse program Sept. 1.


"It's an advocate for those who are vulnerable, for example, older people who have no insurance," said Thomas.

The program, while no substitute for primary care, takes a holistic approach with a blending of care for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of patients, said Bell.

Bell first heard of the program through professional colleagues,but had not expected to initiate one until years from now when she retires. But the interest expressed by Thomas and others at Glen Mar encouraged her to start a program early.

In the six weeks since theprogram began, she has responded to the needs of about 10 people. Bell's presence has made a difference: During one home visit, she discovered that a woman living alone needed emergency treatment. Bell realized another patient was jeopardizing his health by taking more medication than necessary. She has received several calls from people asking for physician referrals. And she has provided support to people who have undertaken their own nursing duties -- the constant care to loved ones who are sick.

Bell's schedule allows her to work eight hours a week, including office hours at the church on Sunday from 8:30 to 11 a.m.

As the parish nurse, Bell intends to focus on five areas -- health education, health counseling, training of volunteers, community health liaison work, and spiritual support. A variety of topics, such as adults children struggling to care for aging parents, druginteraction for senior adults and weight loss programs can be addressed in the health education area through various workshops, she said.


The health counseling area of her job can provide resources or answers to questions about a newly diagnosed illness or the growth stages of infants.

As a community liaison, Bell plans to work closely with employees at hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and social service agencies, then share information about their services with her patients.

To accommodate the growing congregation, Bell also plans to train volunteers who are health care professionals such as nurses, doctors, psychologists, counselors, nutritionists, social workers, pharmacists and nurses' aides. Their duties might include taking blood pressure, visiting the sick or listening to someone with an emotional problem.

"I don't have to be the one who has to do all of that," Bell said. "My job is to find people to fill the needs."

Bell received a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Rochester (N.Y.) in 1964, a master's in psychiatric mental health nursing from the University of Minnesota in 1966, and a doctorate in nursing sciencefrom Catholic University of America in Washington in 1981.

"I believe parish nursing can be useful in helping people to avoid institutionalization and enable them to live in a positive sense at home," Bell said. "It can put people in touch with community resources and teach them how to care for themselves. . . . It's a wonderful way for meto practice nursing the way I always wanted to."