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Meet Northern Ireland’s first parish nurse who is on a mission to care for all her neighbours

Jennifer Gault, from Limavady, tells Lisa Smyth about the trip to the US that inspired her new role, how loneliness is the biggest issue on her rounds and bringing up four children, including triplets

Community role: Jennifer Gault
Community role: Jennifer Gault

By Lisa Smyth

Jennifer Gault was just a teenager when she decided to become a nurse. She was volunteering at a care home for elderly people in her home town of Limavady, Co Londonderry, when she made the decision to follow her mum into the profession.

Since then, the mum-of-four has worked in a number of roles, from theatre nurse to health visitor, but she has now become Northern Ireland's first ever parish nurse.

The job sees Jennifer work with Limavady Methodist Church to offer a unique service, providing support, advice, healthcare and a listening ear to those that need it most.

It could be something as simple as having a cup of tea with a person who has been recently bereaved, or introducing a new mum to a local mother and tots' group, but demand for the service already outstrips supply.

And it is little wonder - coming as the health service in Northern Ireland faces unprecedented pressure, while a decline in the sense of community has resulted in more and more people becoming isolated from society.

In fact, it is a general feeling of loneliness and everything that comes with this that has placed greatest demands on the service.

Jennifer said: "The interest has been phenomenal.

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Jennifer Gault during one of her evenings working at Limavady Methodist Church
Jennifer Gault during one of her evenings working at Limavady Methodist Church

"When we started out on this journey, we had no idea what to expect, what the interest in the service would be.

"We have worked really hard in connecting with local groups around Limavady to raise awareness of what I do and to let people know that I'm here.

"The interest has been really encouraging and it highlights the need for more support and more information.

"At the moment, I am funded to do 10 hours a week but honestly, I could do two or three times that easily.

"Loneliness has definitely been the biggest issue. Just for people to have someone to sit and listen to them has definitely been the most productive part of my role.

"I don't have the same demands placed on me as the health service, I don't have a massive case-load to work through, and I would say the most important thing is having that time to really sit down and talk and listen and discuss any concerns or problems."

Jennifer (39) couldn't be better suited to the role - after all it was her desire to communicate and build relationships that led her to become a nurse in the first place.

She continued: "There are nurses in my family, my mum was a nurse, but I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do when I was at school.

"I was considering teaching but then I volunteered in Thackeray Place care home as part of my Queen's Award that I was doing through the Girl's Brigade.

Jennifer Gault during one of her evenings working at Limavady Methodist Church
Jennifer Gault during one of her evenings working at Limavady Methodist Church

"I loved sitting and listening to people, listening to their stories about how they had arrived at this point in their life, about their experiences, so nursing won over teaching in the end."

Throughout her career, Jennifer - mum to 14-year-old triplets Peter, Aimee and Rachel and 11-year-old Thomas - has amassed many different skills that make her perfect to be a parish nurse.

She started out as a theatre nurse at Altnagelvin Hospital before going on a career break after the birth of her triplets.

She also spent six years working on a surgical ward in the North West Independent Hospital before joining the district nursing team in Limavady.

"I had always wanted to work in the community and this seemed like the perfect opportunity," she continued.

"I was born in Limavady and brought up in the town and I loved the idea of looking after people in my home town and being close to home.

"It was very varied, you could go from seeing a patient with chronic disease to dressing a leg ulcer, or maybe providing palliative care and supporting a patient to stay at home for as long as possible, or changing another patient's catheter.

"Then an opportunity came up to train as a health visitor, which is something I was keen to do because of my experience of having triplets.

"I had the knowledge of what it was like to be a mum and the demands that go along with that.

"Also, my triplets were born at 29 weeks, so I could understand all the complications that go with having a premature baby."

Jennifer worked as a health visitor in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, until she moved into her current role.

The idea to introduce a parish nurse in Limavady came years ago, shortly after Jennifer qualified as a nurse, but it is only in the past 12 months that her dream has finally become a reality.

Jennifer Gault during one of her evenings working at Limavady Methodist Church
Jennifer Gault during one of her evenings working at Limavady Methodist Church

Shortly after marrying Jonathan (44), an area sales manager, 16 years ago, the couple travelled to America to visit friends.

It was during their trip to Kingsport, Tennessee, that Jennifer first learned of the existence of the parish nurse.

"While we were there, I heard about the parish nurse, which is quite popular in America," said Jennifer.

"I got chatting to some people and they were asking me about my job and they told me all about the parish nurse and what they did, and it sounded like such a lovely idea.

"I wasn't long qualified as a nurse so I didn't do anything about it but every now and again the idea of it would pop back in my head."

It was during a chance conversation last year with the minister of Limavady Methodist Church, Rev Paul Gallucci, that Jennifer decided to find out more information about setting up a parish nurse service.

She discovered Parish Nursing Ministries UK, a Christian charity which helps churches appoint nurses who provide a holistic healthcare service for church congregations and the wider community.

"I contacted Helen Wordsworth, who set up Parish Nursing Ministries UK, and we talked through the expectations of a parish nurse and how you go about setting up the service," she said.

"We left it that we would think and pray about it and we subsequently decided to go for it, and I went to Birmingham in March to do some training and we started the service in May."

While Jennifer is employed by the Methodist Church, the service is open to everyone.

Healthcare professionals, such as local GPs, can refer their patients, or people can access the service directly themselves.

Jennifer explained: "You don't have to be a church-goer, we're here for all faiths and those with no faith at all.

"I am a Christian, I go to church and I believe, but I also believe that church is more than just a Sunday morning.

"It's not enough to just turn up on a Sunday morning. That isn't what Jesus told us to do, he told us to care for our neighbours.

"I'm here for anyone who needs that little bit of extra support, from families with young children right up to people in their 90s.

"Perhaps a person doesn't meet the criteria for the district nurse or heath visitor, but they need a little bit of help.

"It could be someone who is bereaved and who is struggling or someone who has just had a baby and doesn't have much family around to help.

"It could be a person who has just come out of hospital and their family don't live nearby and they just want someone to check up on their loved one."

As well as visiting people in their homes, Jennifer also runs a weekly drop in event at Limavady Methodist Church Hall every Wednesday between 10am and 11.30am.

"I don't do anything invasive, but I can do things like check blood pressure and offer advice on things like healthy eating or signpost people to other services or organisations," she said.

"I can take a look at something that is troubling someone and offer advice whether they need to see a doctor or go to the treatment room. I can take a look at medication and make sure it's being taken properly.

"An important part of my work is early intervention to try and stop people from ending up in hospital, which is also really beneficial.

"Even though we've only been up and running for a matter of weeks, the demand has been incredible.

"We have already had enquiries from other churches who are interested in setting up their own parish nurse. People can really see the benefit for the community.

"I am so humbled and honoured to be running this service in Limavady."

How parish nursing came to the UK ...

The Rev Dr Granger E Westberg first developed the parish nurse role in 1985 in the US. He had recognised the special role that nurses play in the community, combining their knowledge of medical science and the humanities to form a relationship between the medical profession and individuals.

Ann Solari-Twadell, author of the book Parish Nursing: Promoting Whole Person Health within Faith Communities, was invited by a group established by GP Dr Malcolm Rigler to speak at a UK national conference in July 2001 with a view to bringing the role here.

The Parish Nursing Ministries UK group states: "In the UK it is clear that the National Health Service cannot comprehensively meet the burgeoning demand for increasingly complex care and there is a need for individuals and communities to reclaim a responsibility for whole person care. The church, as part of its fundamental remit of bringing wholeness and salvation through Christ, is well equipped to engage more fully in this activity, reclaiming its original remit as commissioned by Jesus.

"However, those who undertake to operate in the ministry of health care need to do it to agreed standards and quality of care. The establishment of Parish Nursing as a recognised practice provides the opportunity to protect the public."

Following the first national conference in 2001, further developments occurred. Baptist minister the Rev Helen Wordsworth wrote a thesis on how parish nursing could be implemented in the UK. Eight pilot projects were set up in a number of Christian denominations in 2004, and a further eight the following year. In 2004, agreement was reached to develop a world forum for parish nursing, and in 2005 some nurses involved in the pilot studies visited the US to see first-hand their American counterparts at work.

The Parish Nursing Ministries UK charity and not-for-profit company was established in 2007. Today, a course providing an introduction to parish nursing for registered nurses is run in the UK three times a year.

Any church can have a parish nurse - or a number of churches together. Parish nurses are associated with almost every Christian denomination and some are employed by Christian organisations. Churches and nurses who are interested in the role can request an 'initial enquiries' pack, which can then be followed up by a visit to the area by a representative of Parish Nursing Ministries UK and more detailed information.

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