Faith, duty, and foot pampering wins nurse QSM

1 June 2014

One of faith community nurse Noreen Wright’s flock jokingly calls her the “toe pruner”.

The 74-year-old registered nurse was recently awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for services to senior citizens, including launching highly popular foot clinics for the elderly that have been running for 14 years in her hometown of Christchurch and further afield.

The six-weekly pampering – involving a footbath, trimming of toenails, and finishing off with a relaxing foot massage – now attracts 135 people over two days to the Avonhead Baptist Church clinic.

But when the clinic – open to all people in the community who struggle because of age or injury to reach their own toes – first opened its doors, Noreen recalls they had only one patron for the first few months.

Her team of fellow former and current nurses started to question whether the idea would work. “And I said, have a little faith … I think we need to pray harder.”

Faith, more community notices, and word of mouth saw the idea take off to the point now that 15 clinics have been set up around Canterbury built on the Avonhead model and with training support from Noreen’s team. There are also now clinics in the deep south and the North Island.

It is all part of the caring ethos that means retirement as nurse manager of the Archer Memorial Baptist rest home and retirement village has meant little rest for Noreen, who just stepped up her role as faith community nurse in Avonhead.

She first trained and qualified as a registered nurse at Christchurch Hospital in1958-1961 and worked in medical wards before marrying Colin and raising their four children.

Her daughter’s upcoming wedding and a friend who was matron at George Manning House prompted her return to nursing in the 1980s, caring for people in the centre’s cottages.

It was a district nursing-type role that Noreen loved, including the chance to give that little bit of extra care – like a lady who loved to sew but her sight meant she struggled to thread a needle. “Each week I’d make sure she had four needles threaded in her pin cushion.”

When the job came up as nurse manager for Archer Home, Noreen was encouraged to apply, which after some trepidation, she did and went on to hold the post she loved from 1990 until her retirement in 2004. “You were there to support and guide and teach (the staff) and make it home for the older folk.”

Attending a conference in Canberra on Spirituality and Pastoral Care of the Elderly that had a workshop on faith community nursing resonated with Noreen, and she brought together a group of former RNs at Avonhead Baptist Church, out of which the foot clinics grew.

Her faith community nurse work was on top of her role at Archer Home and she jokes that “there’s no ‘nine-to-five’ about me at all” and thanks her husband Colin and family for allowing her the freedom to do the work she loves

The Avonhead group started with offering blood pressures on the first Sunday of the month and Noreen developed information packs for young mothers in the congregation.

They then started the foot clinics in 2000. So why feet?

“If you have got sore feet it shows on your face… and it’s only doing what they could do if they could still reach their toes.”

The clinics are now finely tuned; there is somebody to greet clients and book appointments, two at work keeping the footbaths cleaned and full, three to four toenail cutters (all registered nurses) and three to four providing the foot massages. Then there is a cup of tea and a bite to eat in a neighbouring room, which Noreen sees as an important part of the service, with the friendships forged at the clinic one of its joys for her.

She has also drawn on the services of infection control nurse specialist Alison Carter to advise on hygiene, to ensure no fungal or bacterial infections are spread, and has a podiatrist to refer on people whose feet need more attention.

Noreen no longer does the massages herself as she has needed knee surgery (and her enthusiasm for ongoing learning meant she watched, live, on a monitor her own knee being operated on).

“It was just wonderful to see all those wonderful little tools he had. This made me appreciate the expertise of the surgeon.”

But she does still do the toe clipping and sees it as an opportunity to really listen to people.

“It just gives them a comfortable space to talk … because some people clam up and they don’t share things that are deep within – if you really listen, you can hear what they are saying behind the words and I think that’s one of the most important things along with respecting what they say – no matter how small or how trivial it might sound.”

As a faith community nurse she is ready to advocate for people who may be reluctant otherwise to speak up.

“I don’t hesitate to ring on behalf of somebody…sometimes they struggle and they don’t want to bother anybody.”

So she is ready to call in family or ring their doctor or nurse or home help agency to get the help they need.

She also checks on people in their home after surgery or hospital visits and would love to be a “matchmaker” to bring together more of the lonely people that she visits.

While she appreciates her QSM she is keen not to rest on her laurels and is considering taking a greater role in advocating on elder abuse issues. She also has ideas in the back of her mind about writing down her thoughts on people dying well.

With another knee operation to come, her main upcoming project is ensuring that the clinics that she helped instigate are in good health and good heart so they can continue evolving and giving comfort to older people.