Saint Peter's promotes disease prevention and wellness to diocesan priests

August 1, 2013


It isn't easy to convince members of the clergy, whose focus is on helping others, to make their own health a priority.

But a program offered by Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., is helping both the priests of the Diocese of Metuchen and their parishioners to get healthier.

Earlier this year, the hospital's Community Mobile Health Services held its second clergy health fair as part of the diocese's annual retreat for priests. And the success of the first health fair prompted similar fairs in more than a dozen Catholic parishes.

Fr. Edmund Luciano, left, gets a finger stick for a cholesterol screen from Saint Peter's University Hospital's community health specialist Daniel Reilley. The New Brunswick, N.J., hospital staffs a clergy health fair during a retreat for priests from the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.

The program began with a conversation between Msgr. Joseph Curry, director of the Office of Ministry to Priests in the Metuchen diocese and pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Spotswood, N.J., and one of his parishioners, Marge Drozd, director of community mobile health services for the hospital.

Saint Peter's, a 478-bed acute care teaching hospital, is one of the few Catholic hospitals in the country sponsored by a diocese.

After talking to Drozd about her work, Msgr. Curry asked her to arrange a health fair for the priests during their annual three-day retreat in November 2011.

The fair offered priests an opportunity to get a flu shot; have their blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index and blood sugar measured; talk to a dietician, physician or pharmacist about issues that concerned them; get exercise recommendations from a sports physical therapist; and see with the help of a DermaScan machine how much damage the sun had done to their skin.

The health fair lasted three hours and also featured talks by top doctors at Saint Peter's on such topics as data uncovered by the ongoing Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and the services offered by Saint Peter's and how they could benefit the priests and people of the Diocese of Metuchen.

Delusions of health
The Duke initiative involves only United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. A survey conducted in 2008 drew input from 1726 respondents, or 95 percent of actively serving United Methodist clergy in the state. The survey found higher than average rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, arthritis and hypertension among the clergy. Those surveyed also demonstrated higher than average rates of depression. A follow-on survey conducted in 2010 showed symptoms of depression at nearly double the national average.

"Clergy perceive themselves to be much healthier than they actually are," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative. "They don't always recognize that they need help." In addition, she said, "many pastors equate self-care with selfishness" and "feel they need permission to take the time to attend to their health."

The Clergy Health Initiative continues to assess the health of clergy through "Spirited Life," a clergy wellness program that it launched in 2011.

Parish health fairs
Drozd, who has managed community mobile health services for Saint Peter's since 2001, termed that first clergy health fair for diocesan priests "an overwhelming success."

"We screened 42 priests for different things, and 30 percent came back as abnormal in some way," she said. Although fewer participants were screened at the April health fair, the pattern held, and one-third of those findings were abnormal. The screening results were shared with the individual priests for follow-up with their personal physicians.

"We told them, 'What you experienced today is what we can do for your entire congregation,' and the phones started ringing," Drozd said. Nine parish health fairs were held in 2012, and another nine were to take place this year.

"It was a win-win all around," she added. "It was thrilling for me to see as a nurse of 33 years."

'Superstorm' delay
A second clergy health fair was scheduled for November 2012, but nature intervened in the form of Superstorm Sandy, which severely damaged the retreat house where the priests usually met. The priests also felt they did not want to leave their flocks at such a devastating time, so the annual retreat was canceled.

A shortened and relocated version of the retreat and health fair took place in April. Drozd said a hearing screening was added to the list of offered services this year, since many priests of the Metuchen diocese are older.

Saint Peter's Clergy Health Initiative won the Community Outreach Award this year from the New Jersey Hospital Association's Health Research and Educational Trust. The award recognizes unique and effective methods of enhancing access and quality of care to reduce disparities in health care.

Each parish health fair is a massive undertaking, involving a dozen staff members from the hospital and volunteers from the parish rosary society or Knights of Columbus, Drozd said.

On the road again
But the clergy and parish fairs are far from the only activities of Saint Peter's Community Mobile Health Services.

In the 12 years since Drozd became head of the unit, the hospital's community outreach has grown from approximately 600 patients a year to nearly 16,000.

A 34-foot mobile unit travels thousands of miles per year to homeless shelters, workplaces, senior centers, schools, churches and the local mall. Staffed by physicians, registered nurses, advanced practice nurses and technicians, the mobile unit offers vaccinations and a set of screenings that vary depending on the particular audience served that day.

Community Mobile Health Services also has partnered with the health departments of New Jersey's Middlesex and Somerset counties to provide wellness programs and offer flu shots at local schools.

In the past two years alone, Community Mobile Health Services has provided health education and screenings to 30,000 people at hundreds of sites. Services provided have been partially funded by more than $800,000 in grants since 2002.

But the clergy health fairs — and the parish health fairs that have grown from them — are what make Drozd most proud.

"The program gives Saint Peter's the opportunity to offer care to those clergy who normally are busy caring for their flock," she said.

Msgr. Curry said the feedback from priests has been overwhelmingly positive. "The priests had a good experience and they invited (health fair organizers) into their own parishes," he said.

Msgr. Curry said he was impressed that every priest whose screenings indicated a possible health issue got a callback from Saint Peter's within a week of the first health fair.

"If a priest has a precancerous condition or a cardiac issue and he can deal with it before it becomes a problem, that can be a real blessing," he said.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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