Sister’s medical mission boils down to love

Her picture is a prized possession to Paula Merrill, SCN, who has treated patients in rural Mississippi for nearly 30 years. The picture is of a woman, Willie Mae, and the memory of this gentle southern woman, spurs Sister Merrill on as she reaches out to families with little or no access to health care.
Sister Merrill went to Mississippi as a novice with the SCN Congregation in 1981, and has been there ever since. She grew up in Massachusetts, but says she has found a home in the deep South.
Sister Merrill and Sister Margaret Held, OSF, both nurse practitioners, rotate working, one week at a time, at the Lexington Medical Clinic and the Durant Primary Care Clinic, located in Holmes County, one of the poorest counties in the state.
Sister Merrill’s presence provides access to medical care that otherwise might not be available. The clinics serve all ages, regardless of income or access to health insurance.
When asked about her ministry, Sister Merrill is humble and reticent. Her philosophy is, “We simply do what we can wherever God places us.” It is that down-home manner that endeared her to a client, Willie Mae, who remains an inspiration to Sister Merrill today. Willie Mae is now deceased, but Sister Merrill keeps her photo next to her computer as a constant reminder of what is at the heart of her ministry.
While working in Holly Springs, Miss., Sister Merrill received a referral to visit Willie Mae, who was elderly, living alone, and in need of health services. She lived in a small, poorly built home with no insulation, a leaking roof, no running water and only a small wood stove for heat in the winter. Her failing eyesight made preparing meals almost impossible. Because of her failing memory, she would forget to take her medicine. So, Sister Merrill visited Willie Mae every day to remind her to take her medicine and encourage her to eat.
Sister Merrill explains that she worried about Willie Mae and realized the elderly woman needed more care than could be provided at home so she helped make arrangements for Willie Mae to receive care at a local nursing home. She went to visit Willie Mae at the nursing home one day to see how she was adjusting.
Willie Mae was in the dining room, so Sister Merrill waited in her room. When the nurse pushed Willie Mae in her wheelchair into her room, they saw Sister Merrill. The nurse asked Willie Mae, “Do you know who this is?” Willie Mae looked at Sister Merrill and her eyes lit up. She responded, “Oh, she’s the one who loves me.”
Indeed, Sister Merrill is the one who loves her clients. That’s evident when you meet her and when you hear her describe her ministry. She talks about her clients over the years as the “communion of saints.” Willie Paul, a man in his 50s, worked in cotton fields all his life and was diagnosed with diabetes. Otis is a four-year-old boy whom she treated for a burn on his foot after he fell against a wood stove used to heat his home. She remembers Tasha, a ten-year-old girl who came to the clinic with a fever, shortly after their family’s home was destroyed by a fire.
Sister Merrill enters into people’s lives at critical moments, and brings a loving presence matched with professional care that offers hope and comfort.
She recalls a quote, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Willie Mae knew. So does Willie Paul, Otis, Tasha and the many others who come to Sister Paula for care. Sister Merrill intends to stay in Mississippi for as long as she can, doing what she can where God has placed her.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in The Journey, a publication of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, in 2010. Sister Merrill continues to serve in Holmes County. It is republished with permission in honor of the Year for Consecrated Life. Other religious are invited to submit reflections to