When it comes to volunteering, Caroline Jacobs has a hard time saying no. As a member of St. Mary Parish in Melrose and a registered nurse, the opportunities to help are ample.
So, she answered with a hearty “yes” when two faith community nurses from the Cold Spring area approached her to get involved with Project H.E.A.L., an outreach program of CentraCare Family Health Center that offers basic care at various Central Minnesota locations for those who have little or no insurance.
The goal of Project H.E.A.L. — which stands for “health, education, access, link” — is to overcome the barriers to health care for the under-served population of Central Minnesota. These include transportation, inadequate or lack of insurance, financial resources for co-payments and medications, language and cultural differences.
Jacobs, who works as an RN at Pine Villa Care Center in Melrose, helped launch the Project H.E.A.L. clinic in Melrose in 2002. The team met in the basement of St. Mary’s the third Sunday of every month until March 11 when a fire damaged the church. They hope to start the clinic again next fall.
The Melrose team also includes Dr. Patrick Heller, a Melrose physician; Linda Wenker, a retired RN; and Alex Garay, an interpreter who translates for Spanish-speaking patients. Recently, they have added Dr. Lindsey Chmielewski, also a physician in Melrose, to the Project H.E.A.L. team.
“At first we had just a few patients. Now we have anywhere from four or five people to as many as 17 in a day,” Jacobs said.
When a patient arrives at the clinic, Jacobs asks a few simple questions and takes the patient’s vitals, like pulse, weight and blood pressure.
Then they visit the doctor, who does a basic consultation. If more care is needed, the patient is then referred to their local CentraCare hospital-based clinic, where they can follow up on any additional needs.
For Jacobs, it is also an extension of her faith.
“Every person I see, I try to see in the light of Christ. Not just medicine heals. Faith heals, prayer heals,” she said.
Initially, it was Pastor Carol Jean Smith, director of Place of Hope Ministries in St. Cloud, who reached out in 1999 to what was then called the Mid-Minnesota Family Medicine Center in St. Cloud with the hope of getting basic health screening for people experiencing homelessness in the St. Cloud area.
The first clinic was set up in the basement of Place of Hope later that year. It took a little while for the idea to catch on.
“It’s not always about people not having insurance,” Pastor Smith said. “It’s really a matter of trust. By bringing the doctor here, where people know us and trust us, they might be more willing to trust the doctor, too.”
It became clear there was a need and a desire to expand the program. That’s when Project H.E.A.L. was formed and when Paul Knutson, mission development specialist, came on board.
Knutson’s first goal was to identify partners in different communities, including registered nurses from the Central Minnesota Parish Nurse program. Then physicians, nurses and other medical professionals were recruited to help staff the clinics in areas of need.
Today, there are Project H.E.A.L. clinics in multiple locations, including Long Prairie, Sauk Centre, Melrose, St. Cloud and Monticello. Knutson is currently exploring the possibility of a new clinic site in Paynesville.
Knutson estimates that over 150 volunteers have been involved with Project H.E.A.L. since its inception, contributing more than 8,700 hours. They have held over 1,100 clinics and had 5,277 patient encounters. This year has been the biggest year yet, with 488 people served so far.
“It gives medical personnel the opportunity to be part of a team, often through their church, to serve Jesus and use the gifts and talents God has given them,” he said. “You can tell the people involved with Project H.E.A.L. do this for love, not money. It shows the caliber of people, the dedication they have to do what they do.”
Dr. Terrence Pladson, a retired physician and former president and CEO of CentraCare Health, saw the need for and the impact of the Project H.E.A.L. from the beginning, first as an administrator and now firsthand as a volunteer. Each month, he goes back to his role as physician and serves on a team at the clinic held at the Salvation Army in St. Cloud.
“I’ve had a chance to watch the development of this program in my prior role as CEO as an evolution from a free clinic,” Dr. Pladson said. “The option to have free health screening and basic health care in the community has expanded now to many locations. It’s a great opportunity to provide care for patients who have avoided medical care because they don’t have insurance.”
Knutson is grateful for the support of all those who have helped the program expand and is humbled by Dr. Pladson’s involvement in the Project H.E.A.L. program.
“He was a great support when he was CEO of CentraCare and is one of our newest volunteers,” Knutson said. “He’s seen it from the beginning and has always shown his care and support for everyone — every patient and every volunteer. To know that this program is worthy of his respect means a lot to me.”
Knutson added that many medical professionals who work with Project H.E.A.L. find that it fits their mission and their passion.
“It’s why they got into medicine — to care for people,” he said.
For more information about Project H.E.A.L., visit https://www.centracare. com/services/project-heal.
What does the church say about visiting the sick?
Since visiting the sick is one of the corporal works of mercy, that is, “a charitable action by which we help our neighbors in their bodily needs” (U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults), it would seem to involve curing or at least trying to relieve the symptoms of the ailment.
But this work of mercy centers on “visiting” or being present to the person who is ill. How can simply visiting a sick person “attend to their bodily needs”?
The answer lies in the inevitable isolation which results from the experience of illness. Recall the last time you were sick, even if it was just a 24-hour stomach bug. Did you feel as though the world was going on without you? Perhaps you were in your room while the rest of your family was in the house going about their daily tasks. You likely had to lay aside your plans and opt out of commitments and other plans for the day.
Now imagine how that sense of isolation expands during a protracted illness, or during the experience of living in a care facility, apart from family and friends. While the physical ailment brings pain and discomfort, often it is the separation from community that hurts the most.
Jesus recognized this truth. That is why the stories of his healing so often depict Jesus not only restoring people to health and wholeness but also returning them to their communities. Thus, the boy possessed by a demon is healed and given back to his father (Luke 9:42); Peter’s mother-in-law is healed and begins to serve the disciples (Mark 1:31).
Frequently, the restored person takes on the role of evangelist, sharing the good news of Jesus’ healing power with their friends, onlookers and even their hometowns. This is community realized: where the formerly ill or disabled person takes on a vital role in drawing others into the kingdom.
So how can this focus on community help us when we ourselves visit the sick? First, it can remind us that the person we are visiting is still very much a part of our community, though he or she may not be able to participate in social, communal or religious activities. This truth comes alive for me whenever I bring holy Communion to our parishioners who are homebound. Though they are unable to join us at church for Mass, they eagerly receive Jesus in the Eucharist, welcome news from the parish in the form of the bulletin, and assure me of their prayers for our faith community. Some even contribute to the collection!
The practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament began in the early years of the church as a way to include the sick in the celebration of the Eucharist. Even if we don’t take Communion when we visit the sick, our presence assures them that they are still vital to our families and communities, a message which is healing for both body and soul.
Maureen Otremba, a writer and workshop presenter, is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.
Visit the sick
For an online lesson regarding this work of mercy, visit http://stcloudvisitor.org/year-of-mercy and click on “catechetical resources.” The “visit the sick” installment includes a video and prayer, reflection questions and suggested activities.