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Support, Help, and Comfort
An interview with Anna Kovalevskaya, the head of the Visiting Nurse Service of St Elisabeth Convent

The Visiting Nurse Service of St Elisabeth Convent has just turned two — Sisters Anna Kovalevskaya and Zinaida Lobosova received the blessing of the spiritual father of the Convent to begin this important work of helping the severely ill and elderly persons in their homes in July 2014. Two years don't sound like a long time; to be honest, it's quite a short period, albeit sufficient to draw some conclusions already. What have the sisters managed to accomplish during this period? The supervisor of this ministry — Sister Anna — must be the person who knows best. She is a very agile person who loves what she is doing. She managed to tell us the basic facts about the history of the Ministry and its current news, including but not limited to the fact that the sisters now have their own patron saint — Blessed Valentina of Minsk and their own spiritual supervisor — Archpriest Sergius Khrapitsky.

In the course of the Sisterhood of Saint Elisabeth's existence many people have requested assistance in caring for their elderly relatives in their homes. Minsk is a big city, and there are many people who need this kind of help. However, this is not an easy task to organise help even to a couple of bedridden patients, especially if you have to start from scratch. Sister Anna learned this the hard way, even though she had had an extensive experience in managing staff, having worked in private firms with lots of staff, and having spent six years working in the Exhibition Department of St Elisabeth Convent after that. Nonetheless, this project was totally different.

At that moment two years ago they had to learn how to organise the day-to-day functioning of this ministry properly, what the ministry of nurses was about, how to find them and what they should be like.

Anna, how did you tackle all these problems?

We began looking for new staff by placing ads in churches, church shops; we talked about it during the meetings of the Sisterhood and during the talks of Father Andrew with the parishioners, as well as by posting ads on the Internet. I contacted the editorial board of the Convent’s official website immediately and asked them to create a page for the Visiting Nurse Service. They published a sermon of Father Andrew on that page. Then I wrote an article called «We Learn to Love». Then there was an excellent interview entitled Close To Heart published in Vmeste newspaper. I spent three hours talking with the journalist! Then I would give this article to the candidates who came to job interviews to read so that they would understand what sort of job it is and what it is for. Anna Yakimovich, the author of that interview, later became our volunteer, too.

Naturally, Father Andrew was praying for us, and we could feel it. Today I don't even look for new candidates: as soon as there is a place to fill, there comes a new sister. If there's a new sister, we soon get a new request for her to fill. Indeed, the Lord himself is sending us those sisters.

It looks like one has to have a calling for such a ministry?

Yes, this is the most essential component. When people call me and say, «I can't find a job, why not work in the Visiting Nurse Service?» I see that we won't find rapport. More often than not, a sister who wishes to take care of a severely ill person is sent to an existing post to see what the job looks like. There were cases when, after a week-long internship in a hospice, people left for good.

What does a "post" mean?

A post is when a sister sits by the bed of a severely ill person. However, we do not send untrained nurses to such people. First, we have them help in easier cases, where people need someone to help them around the house.

The Lord helped us to begin. When we had no experience at all, He literally «held» our hands... It is only recently that we have got the structure, the paperwork, the systematically trained staff many of whom have already shown themselves to be real nurses...

What do you mean?

I mean, they have demonstrated their ability to sacrifice and be merciful, as well as humility and patience, of course — you can't do without it! One more thing that is important for a sister of mercy is obedience. Creativity and initiative — I do what I want — won't suffice. Criticism of the patient's relatives and intrusion into their family situations is a taboo.

What does a job of a visiting nurse begin with? Like, someone requests help and...

We come to this new post and draw up a plan, specifying how much time and what kind of care that person requires. With this data at hand, I analyse which sister will do this job best, based on her character, inclinations, and knowledge.

It's amazing that you do it on an individual basis!

Yes, we do. We have adopted the Best Practices for Home Care, a document which describes everything we do and all the paperwork that a sister has to fill in — a schedule of her visits, and a file with general information about each patient, including their case history and a list of required actions.

How many sisters work in this ministry now?

There are twenty-five nurses (twenty-one of whom work full-time and the rest work part time) and thirteen volunteers, including three males. We also have a full-time male nurse Victor Churilo. Currently, we help over sixty people. Over three hundred people have requested our help in the two years of our work. Thank God we manage to help most of them, even with advice.

What is the difference between the work of volunteers and the work of the registered nurses?

Volunteers are those who work elsewhere and visit the lonely elderly people and the disabled who usually need someone to help with the housework and to talk to.

Do they do it for free?

Yes, they do. On the contrary, for the nurses, this is the main job they have. Taking care of the bedridden patients first and foremost calls for stability: our sisters visit them three times a week, four times a week, or every day. This kind of work includes sanitary and hygiene care, i.e., they have to wash that person, change their nappies or otherwise help them to relieve nature. They need proper training for it. They have to be knowledgeable about prevention of bedsores, treatment of various wounds, bandaging in accordance with doctor's recommendations.

Help with housework includes cooking, feeding the patient, shopping, paying for the utilities, going to an appointment with a doctor or calling a doctor.

How do people find you? Where do you get the most requests from?

They search for this kind of services on the Internet and find our page. Additionally, all sisters who work in our church shops are well informed about our ministry and give people my phone number. People also ask Sister Zinaida Lobosova during our meetings. Well, and those whom we have helped, also recommend us… We already have requests that we can't fulfil due to lack of resources. But people keep saying that they want only our sisters. This is a huge responsibility for us. I always tell the sisters that we are not just the bedside attendants. People look at us and think that if we work for the Sisterhood and the Convent, we are definitely good Christians: responsible, decent, and merciful. Most of these people used to be accountants, lawyers, and psychologists. Of course, we were afraid at first, because we didn't even know how to change nappies…

How did you learn? For instance, The Sisterhoods of Mercy Fellowship of the Belarusian Orthodox Church has classes for nurses.

Fourteen of our sisters have finished these courses. Konstantin Yatskevich, a medical psychologist who had worked with palliative care teams, taught us how to interact with critically ill patients. An experienced nurse taught us right at the bedside of her patient. We have been to the International Forum Mercy in St Petersburg. It was during one such trip that we visited Pokrovskaya Obitel terminal care house. We have also been to St Demetrius terminal care facility in Moscow.

Natallia Zhuk, one of our sisters who is a choreographer by profession, went to Moscow to take part in a special seminar to learn how to move and transport severely ill people. Now she teaches these methods to our new sisters, i.e. we have our home grown tutor already. In addition to that, I took a nine-month online course on social ministry taught under the aegis of Moscow Patriarchate. Later they invited me to Moscow for practice. I went to Moscow together with Sister Zinaida. We stayed in SS Martha and Mary Convent, visited St Alexis Hospital and met the sisters who work in this field. This experience and these connections are priceless — and these are not the only experiences and connections that we have managed to accumulate during these last two years.

We do need skills, of course, but... Father Andrew once said that you can learn to change the nappies but changing human souls is a far more demanding endeavour.

Do you mean spiritual assistance, when you take care not only of one’s aching body but also of their souls?

Yes, this is the most important thing to do! We come to various people — some of them have never confessed nor taken communion in their life. Some of these people have traumatised souls or family conflicts. We try to start with little things like care and mercy, and then gradually begin to pray and read the Gospel with them.

If they don’t mind?

Certainly, without coercion, tactfully and in a non-intrusive manner. As an alternative to this, we can read a book together, sit down and have a conversation. How great it feels when a person who was baptised as a baby and spent his entire life without confession and communion — sometimes they didn’t even know what these words meant — finally decides to take communion! The priests who serve in our Convent always come and give communion to many of our patients.

How do sisters maintain their spiritual strength? Their work is very demanding, isn’t it?

Of course, the spiritual component of our ministry is very important for the sisters, too. I believe that unity in our ministry is the crucial thing to have: we must be together, we must feel the bond among our team, so that the sisters could trust one another and be able to carry out each other’s duties, if need be. Naturally, we cannot be ideal in all respects but the Lord helps us a lot.

Our Visiting Nurse Service is more than just taking care of the sanitary and hygienic needs of severely ill persons. The sisters are in constant spiritual contact with their patients, each of whom has their own unique character traits. In fact, it is impossible to do this job well without Christ who is in the midst of the patient and the sister’s relationship. That was why we immediately decided to have regular meetings in order to discuss the issues that arise and to pray together, in addition to professional training.

Since the very beginning of our ministry, Father Andrew Lemeshonok came to our meetings, talked with us and answered our questions. However, we needed a priest who would take care of our ministry and our staff on a day-to-day basis, who would bring us together spiritually.

As a result, Father Andrew blessed Father Sergius Khrapitsky to be in charge of our spiritual well-being. He actively and enthusiastically approached this assignment. We began with a moleben in the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God. It was then that Father Sergius chose St Valentina of Minsk as our heavenly patroness.

We had a pilgrimage to her burial site on June 25. There were more than thirty of us. Father Sergius served a moleben, and we prayed for everyone: the sisters and the patients. We also visited a church in Stankovo. They warmly greeted us.

The work of the Visiting Nurse Service must cost a lot of money. Where do you find it?

Our primary source is donations by the relatives. However, there are people who can’t pay for the care. That was why we submitted our application to the Orthodox Initiative contest and won a grant! The grant money went into buying office equipment, hygiene kits, medical equipment for the severely ill, training and outfits for the nurses.

A new Belarusian web portal imenamag.by has published information about our patients recently, and our project was featured on talaka.by — a crowdfunding resource. It has brought in some funds that we can use to help the patients who can’t afford it. I was surprised to see that 215 users of the crowdfunding service supported our project with over 5500 BYN, and two new volunteers have joined our team. That’s so great when people don’t shy away from others’ sorrow! This makes us united!

We organise fundraising events in Korona shopping malls during Christmas and Easter season every year. This has proven to be an effective way to raise funds. After these events, we buy huge gift boxes, pack them with gifts and give to each of our patients. We visit them, sing some songs and give them the gift boxes and Christmas or Easter cards. We also send some money to a private residential care facility Family Quay (Vajhany, Valožynski rajon).

Dear Sister Anna, what are your plans, hopes, and expectations?

Hardly a day passes without someone calling me and asking if we provide residential care for the elderly. We need a residential care facility — a real house of mercy for the elderly run by the Convent. This is what we need and dream of right now!

By Helena Nasledysheva

July 30, 2016

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