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Active Time - Lucy Brenner

Separate Stitches in the Same Quilt

Author: Deborah Wolfe
Date: March 1, 2010
Section: Active Times

Sunshine shimmered across a crystalline bed of snow as Lucy Brenner navigated her way along the twisting Osage County roadway leading to Chamois. As a parish nurse, Brenner logs thousands of miles each year in her quest to bring compassion, understanding, nourishment and good health to the area's elderly.

"Isn't it breathtaking," Brenner said, gesturing toward the rolling hillside. "I'm blessed to have this as my commute each day." Each day for Brenner begins with a couple of morning chats; one with the Hereford cattle she rears and the other with her maker. "I go out and feed the cows and say my prayers," Brenner said. "I couldn't get through the day without my morning talk with God." Most of those conversations are filled with thanks for her many blessings, but they seldom end without a prayer of concern for her fellow parishioners. "Christ left the 99 to search for the one," Brenner said.

"That is the vision of parish nursing. To seek out and help those in our faith who are in need." Recognized by the American Nursing Association as Faith Community Nursing, the mission of parish nursing is to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of congregation members. The ministry is embraced by many different Christian denominations as well as several other faith traditions.

Believing parish nursing can be the glue that keeps elderly parishioners in their homes and bonds them with the community, Brenner implemented the program in Osage County in 2007. Working with the parishes of Most Pure Heart Mary in Chamois and Assumption in Morrison, Brenner made 240 home visits that first year, while fielding 602 phone calls and making 60 referrals in her effort to care for the needs of homebound parishioners.

"I believe that ultimately healthy older adults will have to care for the ailing elderly," Brenner said, noting research showing that 80 percent of Osage County households declare a religious affiliation. "With health care reform up in the air and so many senior citizens living below the poverty line, we have to learn to take care of each other."

Evidence that her ministry is growing can be found in her mileage reports with 4,522 miles logged in 2009. An exhausting journey no doubt, but one that Brenner embraces heart and soul. Her devotion was evident as she moved from room to room at the Autumn Meadows residential care center in Linn.

Stopping to say hello to a group of ladies resting by the nurses' station, Brenner greeted each one by name and gave a detailed history of their relationship, remembering family members and landmark occasions. In another room, she chatted with a former member of her quilting club, sharing fond recollections of their days as sewing chums.

"We made a lot of good memories working on those quilts didn't we," Brenner teasingly asked. "We were like separate stitches in the same quilt."

As she winds her way through the nursing home corridors, one realizes Brenner herself is the thread holding the remnants of her ailing congregation together. Her final visit brings about the kind of moment that borders on the miraculous.

Told that a friend had difficulty rousing a parishioner with brain damage, Brenner nuzzled up close to the woman's bedside, tenderly holding her hand and chiding her to awaken. Still getting no response, Brenner suddenly burst into song, the lyrics to "This is My Song," filling the room. 

With a flicker of recognition, the drowsy woman peeked open an eye that widened at the sight of her songbird. With a crooked mouth and slurred speech, she began to sing along, her voice growing stronger with every verse.

Their duet complete, Brenner turned to the small group gathered around the bed, the blush of her cheeks revealed her own emotions.

"I didn't see that coming did you?" Brenner asked, noticing the tears of a visitor. "You can't help but have tears in your eyes. That was a special moment, and we're blessed to be a part of it." Special moments like this are a regular part of Brenner's life, blessed rewards of dedicating more than 45 years to caring for others. Faith and healing have always defined her mission. In many ways, her life has come full circle from the days she was a fledgling nurse, with a few distinct differences. Brenner's initial "Nightingale Pledge" was followed by a commitment to a power much higher than medical doctrine.

In 1960, Brenner joined the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns dedicated to serving the poor and disenfranchised. She spent the following 13 years tending to the needs of impoverished patients in hospitals and clinics.

Her final mission in Montgomery, Ala., left her feeling helpless to make a difference for the penniless patients she served. Unlike many orders, Daughters of Charity renew their vows once a year. And as the date grew closer, Brenner knew that it was time for her to move on.

"We were supposed to be helping the poor, but when a person has no money in the first place, how are they supposed to pay a hospital bill," Brenner queried. "When time came to renew my vows, I knew I just couldn't do it anymore."

After spending three years in the service of a free-health clinic, Brenner returned to Missouri at the urging of her cousin. It was a fortuitous decision for the former nun who not only garnered a teaching position in the nursing department at Lincoln University, but also met the man of her dreams.

Brenner met her husband, John, in 1979, and the couple had one son, Tony, who lives close by his mother on their 300-acre farm. The family spent more than two decades happily tending to their centennial farm until her husband's ill health forced them to sell.

"I couldn't believe it the day I returned home from work and John told me he had sold the farm," Brenner said. "But when I look back now, I thank John and I thank God that he made that decision."

Her professional life also flourished, and she became a well-respected and much loved educator through her 23 years with Lincoln. Her down-to-earth nature, plainspoken health care advice and approachable personality inspired a cable access show appropriately titled "Family Health with Nurse Lucy."

"I don't think I would have gotten through nursing school without her," said Anastasia Sanner, director of nursing at Autumn Meadows. "Even after you were done with her class, you knew that you could always go back and ask for her help anytime."

"That's what the peppermints were for," Brenner added with a wink. "I kept them on my desk so my students would have an excuse to come back and chat."

Retired from teaching since 1999, Brenner is now looking at cutting back on her television role as well.

"It's been a wonderful journey, but it’s time to ease out of it," Brenner said. 

Dedicating her all to the success of the Osage County Faith Community Nurse Project is her present-day mission. Brenner became involved in the program at the urging of a fellow faculty member after the death of her husband.

"I knew about the concept, but I wasn't ready immediately after I retired," Brenner said. "It was good that I waited because my husband fell ill with coronary artery disease, and I was his primary caregiver."

The Osage County project began in 2006 with a seed grant from A.J. Schwartze Foundation as a model project of the Missouri School of Religion. As the project coordinator, countless hours of care giving are followed by the endless quest for funding.

In 2007, she committed every bit of time, talent and resources she could muster on behalf of the homebound elderly of Osage County. It is a role that Brenner seems uniquely suited for.

Her last visit of the day took Brenner to the home of 91-year-old Vernon White. After numerous phone calls were greeted with a busy signal, she was relieved when White welcomed her at the door. Her first course of action was to locate the wayward telephone and remind White to make sure he pushes the button to hang up after making a call.

A widower, White is often lost without the companionship of his life mate. Brenner fills in the gaps with regular visits to bring him groceries, organize his medications for the week and help with chores that are beyond his abilities, even if it means donning a pair of White's old rubber boots to tromp through the snow and fill a bird feeder.

As Brenner stretched her petite frame to pour a bucket birdseed into the feeder, painful memories of one she couldn't help came flooding back.

"Our resources only allow us to care for our own parishioners," Brenner said. "But if we are approached by someone outside of the congregation, we do our best to put them in touch with other agencies that can help."

Numerous attempts to connect the individual with the appropriate agencies fell through and sadly, the ailing man got lost in the system. Brenner later learned that he was found dead on the frozen ground near his birdfeeder.

"I'm haunted wondering what more we could have done," Brenner said. "We can't help everyone, but God commanded us to keep trying."

Brenner shook off the memory to return to the warmth of White's kitchen and a lesson in microwave cooking. Finding him in the hallway admiring a picture taken with his late wife years before, she slowed her pace giving him time to enjoy the memory.

After a brief silence, Brenner sensed his mood turning melancholy and for the second time that day, she used song as a remedy.

"Then sing my soul my savior, God, to thee," Brenner sang as White chimed in. "How great thou art, how great thou art."

As the snow began to relinquish its grip on the steep Ozark hills, Brenner pointed her car toward home. Her energy ebbed a bit after a day of driving and care giving, but her passion remained strong as she discussed plans to form a ministerial alliance that would bring the parish nursing program to other denominations.


Information about parish nursing can be found by contacting the Missouri School of Religion at 573-635-1187 or e-mail krystalmsr@earthlink.net.

ACTIVE LIVING? E-mail Deborah Wolfe at debw@thelaketoday.com or call 573-365-2344.

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