Struggling to find health care, people sometimes look to their parishes

First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

It was 2 a.m. when a senior was found wandering the streets in Reston. Hospital staff found no identification on the patient, who was suffering from a medical form of dementia. A day or two later, she was identified and a fellow parishioner at St. John Neumann Church in Reston found out about her predicament. Assisted living looked like the only possible outcome. 

That’s when Susan Infeld, the parish nurse, got a call asking if she could intervene. 

“The privilege of being with people at the best and worst times of their life opened my eyes to the opportunity to really serve God.” Susan Infeld, St. John Neumann parish nurse

“She was a senior who lived alone and had a medical condition that she was not treating,” said Infeld. “I was brought in because she was no longer able to take care of herself and so we needed to find out who her power of attorney was. It turned out to be a former neighbor of hers.”

For the next nine months, Infeld worked with the former neighbor and the patient’s primary care physician. Acting in a supervisory role, she helped the patient keep track of her medication and checked on follow-through. The parish community brought meals and provided emotional support. 

“We were able in that nine-month period of time to bring her back to where she no longer needed supervision and was able to self-manage her own life,” said Infeld, whose position is part of a larger health and wellness ministry at the parish.

When people aren’t sure where to go or how to find help for their medical needs, they often turn to one of the places they trust most: their parish. Whether they make referrals to a nonprofit organization such as Catholic Charities, or like Infeld, walk alongside patients in their journeys, parish staff can sometimes be an invaluable support for those without resources.  

“The privilege of being with people at the best and worst times of their life opened my eyes to the opportunity to really serve God,” said Infeld.

Parish nurses

Faith community nurses such as Infeld serve as health educators, advocates and counselors, according to the Catholic Health Association. Sometimes part-time staff but usually unpaid volunteers, they do not provide individual medical treatment or invasive care. Instead, they have specialized training to help parishioners make educated choices and navigate a complicated health care system. These nurses — who serve at a handful of diocesan parishes — organize flu shot clinics, offer blood pressure or vision screenings, and help those without medical care find a primary care provider.

They offer services to all parishioners, not just those in financial need. But for someone without reliable transportation, getting a blood pressure screening after Sunday Mass might be their only opportunity.

Virginia Mullin, the parish nurse and a longtime parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, recently worked with a pharmacy to offer a flu shot clinic after Mass. Of the 40 people who were vaccinated, five needed a free shot. 

“It’s no fuss, no bother,” said Mullin. “We don’t embarrass anybody.”

When someone comes to her with a complicated medical problem and does not have insurance, she refers them to the nearby Culmore Clinic. St. Anthony and other local faith communities helped found the nonprofit organization a decade ago to serve uninsured people in the Bailey’s Crossroads area.  

“What I do is very small, but I hope it gets me to heaven,” said Mullin, 82.

 Dental care

Henry Flores, a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Dale City, had a lot of pain in his teeth. Fifty-one years old and diabetic, he knew he had to do something about the decay — but also knew there was no way he could pay a dentist’s bill. 

Flores decided to ask his parish where he could find help. It was a natural choice to approach them because a health van provided by Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center visits every Thursday to provide medical care to the uninsured. A counselor from Catholic Charities comes once a week. And social ministries director Maddie Lupo often makes announcements in the bulletin or after Mass when parishioners need baby items, wheelchairs or crutches. 

Holy Family sent him to Dr. Joseph Cavallo, a Woodbridge dentist and parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria. Flores paid a small, one-time fee and made two visits. 

“He gave me antibiotics and the next time he extracted the tooth,” said Flores, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. 

His 72-year-old mother, Berta, also visited Cavallo. While the service helped, she says she still needs dentures. That’s not a service Cavallo’s office can supply because they have to be made by a medical lab.  

Flores said he’ll find a way to help his mom. In the meantime, he’s happy to be out of pain. “I feel very, very good.”

Cavallo has worked with Holy Family for about a decade to treat parishioners who could not otherwise obtain dental care. 

“Fr. Jack O’Hara, who’s been a friend of mine for 30 years, gave me a call,” said Cavallo of Holy Family’s parochial vicar. “He said, ‘hey, we have people calling our parish with toothaches, people calling our parish needing dental treatment. Can you help us out?’ ”

Cavallo initally set aside one Wednesday a month to treat patients screened in advance. Each pays a one-time fee of $40 and from there “basically I’ll provide whatever it takes to get them out of pain,” Cavallo said. 

The demand grew: currently, Cavallo sees about 10 patients a month and this year he has donated $25,000 to $30,000 worth of services. Holy Family only sends him parishioners in the greatest need. 

“We’re just touching the surface,” said Cavallo. “We’re sending people away because we just don’t have the time that’s needed to treat everybody.”

According to the American Dental Association, one in five adults with low income say their mouth and teeth are in poor condition; as many as 42 percent have difficulty biting and chewing. Nearly a quarter even cut back on social activities because of the condition of their mouth and teeth. 

Cavallo says he’s made many phone calls over the years to other dentists because he hates to turn people away. 

“I think my contribution is just one little grain of sand along the beach,” he said. “I would encourage anybody — a dentist, nurse, physician, to help me out and contribute some more little grains of sand. If we all contribute, I think we can make this world a better place.”

For more information on how the Diocese of Arlington is observing World Day of the Poor Nov. 19, go to


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017