Rural Healthcare Challenges and Advent Joy

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sick person, healthcare challenges

This weekend, I learned firsthand about healthcare challenges in rural America. If there are two times a year a pastor avoids sickness, it’s Advent and Easter. This year, I have not been so lucky.

The day before the third Sunday of Advent I started coughing so violently my knees buckled. To say the least, it was a bit uncomfortable. Regardless, I managed to get some cough syrup down and make it to the puppet ministry’s annual Christmas show.

After coming home from church my cough worsened, and I officially felt like, well, I can’t really say here. For a few days I’d dealt with crud in my chest and sinuses (which seemed manageable), but this was on a different level. In a battle of epic proportions, my stubborn will finally lost out to my body’s desire for drugs…lots of drugs. I decided to go to the doctor.

Having lived in our small town for a year, I still don’t have a primary care physician, and go to an urgent-care clinic down the county when needed. All I wanted was that blessed prescription (and to preach on Sunday!).

By the time I helped the puppet team clean up the fellowship hall and grabbed some leftover pizza for lunch (I know, not the best when you’re sick, but a nasty little habit stemming from 10 years of youth ministry), I drove to the clinic.

Here is where my rural healthcare challenges began.

When I arrived it was 2:45 PM and I surprisingly saw no cars in the parking lot. They’re usually open that time on Saturdays. As I got out of the car and approached the door, I saw the lights off. My hunch confirmed when I reached to open the door… locked. Then, I noticed the sign labelled Holiday Hours.

Insert livid-thought-bubble: “Holiday Hours?!?  Thanksgiving was three weeks ago and Christmas isn’t for two weeks from now! Today’s not a holiday! The sign on the front says URGENT CARE.  Don’t you people know that I urgently need care so I can preach tomorrow?!?”

stethoscope, healthcare challenges

In the major city I moved from last year (Houston) such clinics are usually open 24/7. Not so in a rural area. Moreover, our local pharmacy closes around 5 or 6 PM most days of the week. These factors make getting care during evenings and weekends a challenge.

I ended up driving over 45 minutes away to find an open clinic and I got there just a few minutes before they closed. After sitting in the waiting room, and sitting in the exam room, and running down the battery on my iPhone while Facebooking the doctor finally showed up.

Diagnosis: Bronchitis with cough, sinus congestion, Eustachian tube dysfunction, and…Bronchospasms. Now I know the medical name for the cough from hell.

The pharmacy I went to (thank goodness they were still open) was so backed up it took nearly two hours before I got my precious drugs, and another 40 minutes before I got home. On the ride home, at about 7:15 PM, I wisely decided “I probably have no business preaching in the morning.” Plus I didn’t want to risk giving one of our seniors pneumonia. Time to make a call.

Fortunately we have a few retired ministers who live in the community, and the first one I called graciously agreed to fill in. After all, I figured with over 40 years’ ministry experience, “he has to have an Advent sermon in a file somewhere!”

Joy in Spite of Healthcare Challenges 

All this happened the day before the Sunday we light the “Joy candle” on the Advent wreath. I didn’t feel very joyful. I felt like crud. I wasn’t going to get to preach the sermon I diligently prepared. What’s worse, I had to hold off on wearing the Christmas tie my wife hates for an entire week!

Then a strange thing happened. While sitting at home on Sunday, watching the parking lot fill (the parsonage is right next door) my perspective changed. I found joy.

  • Joy in knowing wonderful leaders in our church would cover in my absence.
  • Joy in the help of a dear colleague who stepped in at the 11th hour 
  • Joy in truly resting on the Sabbath.
  • Joy in remembering that Sunday morning doesn’t revolve around me.
  • Joy in hearing my toddler get excited about going to church.
  • Joy in the loving care of my wonderful wife.
  • Joy in the Holy Spirit’s ability to shift frustration into gratitude.

Lessons Learned

While the experience of seeking medical care in a small town on a weekend did not ultimately steal my Advent joy, it did teach me a few things.

  1. Geography is a challenge to rural healthcare. I spent a lot of time driving to see a doctor and to get the meds I needed.
  2. There are too few clinics, doctors, and nurses and in our area. According to the National Rural Health Association, “Only about ten percent of physicians practice in rural America despite the fact that nearly one-fourth of the population lives in these areas.”
  3. Rural churches should explore Parish Nursing Ministry. Parish nurses are RN’s who use their gifts within a faith community. For a full description of parish nursing ministry, check out the free resources provided by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Healthcare in America is a challenge no matter where you live, but rural populations seem to face greater obstacles in obtaining care than metropolitan ones. How can rural churches help bridge this gap? I want to hear your thoughts in the comments below! I’ll definitely give this subject more attention in future posts.

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