Patients under the care of Nurse Dee may be for the rest of their lives.
The Shippensburg community nurse treats patients for as long as they need her help.
Dee Parsons has been working with one of her patients for 15 years. She started seeing the patient – who is being kept anonymous here due to medical privacy rules – about five years into her role as the community nurse.
The patient had recently learned they not only were diabetic, but that the diabetes had taken over their retinas, making them clinically blind.
“So, someone who doesn’t go to the doctor often all the sudden was working in a factory and (had) very limited ability,” she said.
The patient soon lost their job due to their disability, and found themselves living in a home with no running water, no toilets and holes in the roof.
Parsons worked with an organization in the area for the blind to get the patient into a low-cost apartment building, and even found them a pet cat for companionship. Since then, she’s been monitoring their medication and helping them with their health care needs on a weekly basis.
She’s been with the patient so long, the patient is now on their third cat.
“When someone starts with me, I can stay with them and provide service for as long as they need,” Parsons said.
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The community nurse program, which is run by Shippensburg Civic Club, has one focus – to help those without health insurance and those whose insurance won’t cover the services the nurse provides.
The service keeps people out of nursing homes, and in their own homes for longer.
A community nurse treats patients in their homes. Parsons said she completes blood pressure screenings, checks blood sugar levels, fills pill boxes for the elderly and those who have a hard time seeing, checks vital signs and throws away prescription pill bottles that have expired.
In addition, the nurse sometimes buys groceries with money from the club for those she treats, which costs about $500 a year total, Parsons said.
The program primarily helps the elderly in the Shippensburg area, but can assist others who have a primary care physician and live within the school district and area served by the United Way of Shippensburg. Parsons said many of her patients are referred to her by social services, home visit agencies, doctors and family members.
“There are very few community nurse programs such as this around,” she said, adding that she is only one of two community nurses in the county, with the other based in Waynesboro.
The treatment and focus on patients who may otherwise be out of options is what got Carol Davis, who served as the community nurse from 1990 -1995, interested in the program. Davis worked as a nurse in New York, before moving to the area.
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“When I worked on Long Island in home care, we always saw the need for people who were not covered with insurance that needed care, and there was no place that we could go to get care,” she said.
For Parsons, the opportunity crossed her after she moved to Shippensburg and while working part time as a nursing supervisor in a nursing home.
“So, I just applied not knowing even what it was,” she said. “I had no idea what a Shippensburg community nurse was about.”
She has been in the position for the past 20 years, spending her days seeing three to five clients and completing the routine medical care they require.
Although the program is a way to bridge the gap between those without health care coverage and those with it, the size of that gap can present challenges. Because the nurses can only do so much, Davis said, it can be hard to get people the care they need outside of what the community nurse is able to provide them. She said she used to work with doctors, hospitals, social agencies and families to ensure patients got the care they needed.
Parsons also said affording medical supplies, such as bandages, gauze and tape, can be an issue. However, the Civic Club can usually handle the cost of this if necessary, which Parsons estimates is about $200 a year for all patients.
“(Some of the patients) could barely afford to go to the Dollar Tree and get a pack of Band-Aids,” she said, adding that it’s rewarding to provide this for those in need.
Creating the community nurse
In 1911, a group of more than 90 women met with the goal of sponsoring a district nurse, according to information from the Civic Club.
In order to fund the nurse, the women held a bazaar which included booths that had meals, groceries, confections, ice cream, and games and toys.
The event was a success, and after raising about $800 from the bazaar and through donations, the club was able to to hire its first nurse in 1917.
Grace Kyle started at the beginning of the year, right on Jan. 1. During a time when a gallon of milk was 18 cents and coffee was 30 cents a pound, she received 75 cents a day and $2 a night as her pay.
Cars were also new and limited during this time period, so Kyle walked through the often muddy streets to take care of her patients. Ten years after first starting, the Civic Club provided Kyle with a new Ford in 1927.
Over the years, the position continued to evolve. In 1938, the community nurse was given permission to ride with patients in an ambulance or drive them in her car without a doctor; in 1942 the salary increased to $100 a month; and in the 1960s the nurse could use disposable needles.
The evolution of the community nurse
After several decades, and nine nurses later, the program is still going strong.
In fact, it is coming up on its 100th anniversary, which it will celebrate Sept. 9 with a birthday party and open house.
Much has changed since the first nurse started in 1917.
Initially, funding was a challenge, but now “there’s enough interest to keep the service going,” Parsons said. The program is funded by donations from organizations like the United Way of Shippensburg and the Partnership for Better Health.
The pay has of course increased from the original 75 cents per day. As today’s community nurse, Parsons said she earns a salary comparable to nurses who work in a doctor’s office, which can range from $35,000 to $67,000, according to PayScale.com. Neither Parsons nor Davis would give specific amount as to their salaries.
The hours have changed, too. When Davis was the community nurse, she worked 16 hours a week. Now, Parsons works about 25-30 hours a week, and her personal case load has grown from 12 clients when she first started to the 35-39 she is averaging now.
“There just seems to have been a need and somehow they find me,” she said.
Through the program’s changes, the one thing that has remained constant for Parsons is the enjoyment she gets from being able to form relationships with her patients. She said often times they will keep her longer just to talk and share stories, and many of them are on a first-name basis with her.
Davis said what she liked about the job is “the satisfaction that you get from seeing that the needs that the person has (are) being met.”
The work of community nurses is about more than just forming relationships and filling a niche for patients without or not enought health care coverage. Their work is giving those they treat the chance to stay just a little bit longer in their own homes.
“Nobody wants to go to a nursing home until it’s absolutely necessary,” Parsons said. “So, I do my best to keep people independent and at home. I think they call that aging in place.”
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Shippensburg community nurse 100th anniversary
What: Birthday celebration and open house
When: Saturday, Sept. 9 from 1-4 p.m.
Where: The Old Courthouse at the corner of King and Queen streets in Shippensburg
Contact: Call 717-530-1390 for more information.