It’s been said that, “Nurses are the Heart of Healthcare.” That’s an apt statement when it comes to the heart of healthcare in Wilton—look no further than Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Fairfield County. The organization is an ever-present force in all things related to health and wellness, from school nurses to senior care to community medical education to emergency preparedness.

Visiting Nurses are offering one last flu vaccine clinic for residents over the age of 65 today, February 24, for anyone who has not had had the opportunity to receive the vaccine and wishes to do so.

GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Sharon Bradley, RN, MSN, DNP, the president & CEO of Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County to get a sense of the many parts of life in Fairfield County—and Wilton, in particular—the organization touches.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Like many people, I don’t really have an idea of what Visiting Nurse and Hospice is all about.

Sharon Bradley: Our organization has been providing services throughout Fairfield County for 105 years. We began in the Wilton and New Canaan area and over the years, based on the needs of the community, have grown tremendously.

We provide care, home care, community based care, public health services, school nurse services, hospice services. For our homecare and hospice services we provide care down to Greenwich, up to Fairfield, north to Redding and Ridgefield and then for the other communities in mid Fairfield county—Weston, Westport, Wilton, New Canaan, Norwalk, Darien.

We always consider Wilton our primary town of the care that we provide, and that is because we do such a depth of service in Wilton. And by that I mean in addition to our home care and hospice services, we do school nursing for the town of Wilton and we do public health care for the town of Wilton, and we provide our service every day of the week, every week of the year. And we provide our service from 1 hour a day to 24 hours a day.

GMW:  Is Wilton the only community for which you are the public health nurses and the school nurses?

SB:  That’s correct. We are the official school and public health nurses in Wilton. In our public health capacity we provide for the public health, the community health of Wilton. Primarily vulnerable populations, children and older adults, and we are involved to a great degree when there are emergency preparedness needs in Wilton. Whether they be health related—there might be a public health illness emergency such as, last year, Ebola. And a couple of years prior to that H1N1 influenza. Or even something as simple as a weather related emergency. A couple of weeks ago we had that very severe snowstorm on a Saturday, and first selectman Lynne Vanderslice met with the emergency preparedness team on the Friday before that weekend to plan for an emergency should the weather be very severe. If for example, the first selectman determined there was a need to open a shelter for the community, if there was anyone in the shelter who needed nursing care, we would be the individuals to provide them service or we would be a resource for the team if they needed anything health related.

GMW:  You work very closely with Barry Bogle, Wilton’s health director?

SB:  Yes, our public health services are done under his order and with our collaboration. We also provide a great number of health education program in Wilton, at no charge, and also in some of the other communities that we serve. Education around office medical conditions, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory infections. Also, Barry often has opportunity to participate in state grant-funded programs for individuals with chronic illnesses specifically in the Town of Wilton, and he oftentimes will call upon us to be the providers of this education for our residents.

We also are involved in public immunization clinics. Also this year, we are the ones that provide that public influenza, or flu clinic for residents in the community who want to prevent themselves from the common influenza.

GMW:  What kind of services do you provide for homebound residents in need of care?

SB: Another aspect of our public health role, we also do one-on-one public health services for frail, vulnerable, primarily older adults. The program is called the Health Supervision Program. Again, under Barry’s guidance, we provide home visits for individuals who are frail in nature, but whose condition waxes and wanes. They have areas of stability and areas of instability, and with the health supervision visit, our nurse actually makes a home visit and helps the individual to attain the best possible level of health for his or her capabilities, whether it be medication teaching, management of different systems, teaching the individual what kind of situations or symptoms might want more attention whether on our part or in communication with the physician. And it’s a really wonderful program for individuals who aren’t quite ill enough to qualify for Medicare or other insurance coverage, but not quite well enough to be totally independent on their own. It has been a great opportunity to help people in the town of Wilton who are at home and keep their medical conditions stable.

GMW:  In terms of in-home care that’s done on more of a private basis?  

SB:  All of our services are available to all people in all communities on a private pay basis, whether they would like to have a physical therapist come into their home twice a  month to do a exercise program, for example, or if they’d like to have a nurse come once a month and set up their medications and their medication self-administration boxes. Or, very commonly, people need help with the activities of daily living—bathing, showering, getting dressed and ready for the day, or getting ready for bed at night, or meal preparation. We have certified aides to provide that service from one hour a day to twenty-four hours a day. And that can be either a short duration or I have been with the agency 21 years and we have some folks that we are caring for that have private pay home health aid, or home health aid living services, for even over those twenty-one years.

Much of the services we provide are covered under various insurance plans for older adults, commonly Medicare. But Medicare is, and many insurances are, rather strict in terms of the services that they will reimburse on individual plans. If an individual must have a stable medical condition, or is recovering from a hospital visit or surgery, on new medication and receiving new treatment that they may need, for many people the need for care is beyond that, either in terms of type of service or duration of service.

Because we are not for profit, we can and do a significant amount of fundraising to offset the cost for people who have limited needs to pay. So each of our services is available for people who qualify at a reduced, or no charge basis. If the need is there, then that is the purpose of the funds we raise. Or if someone has an insurance plan that will only cover a portion of care and the care needs are greater, again, some of the funds that we raise can be used to offset that cost for individuals so that they can stay in the safety and comfort of their home with our support.

GMW:  What is respite care?

SB:  In many situations an individual will have a caregiver, whether it be a parent caring for a child, or whether it be an adult child caring for an older adult parent, or caring for a spouse. That is the plan that that particular family wishes to pursue. But we do know that over time, sometimes the demand of caregiving can be stressful.

With our Respite Care Program, one of our nurses aides goes into the home and actually serves as the caregiver for a brief period of time. It may be a couple of hours a week, a weekend, so that the caregiver can get away, visit family in other parts of the country. We have one family, the “S Family,” that we’ve been caring for, for a very long time. Once every eight weeks we have our live-in home health aide go into the home and care for Mrs. S, and then Mr. S gets to go to Boston for the weekend and visit their adult child and grandchildren. Having our home health aide in the home, he knows that she is getting terrific care and he doesn’t have to worry, or at least worry too much. Respite care is often not covered by any insurance so we raise funds and secure grants for that, so that we pay a portion or all of the fee related to that service.

It really has made a great difference. It is amazing to see a little bit of respite care services can make a great difference to a family.

MW:  Then there are the school nurses–I don’t think many people know that the nurses in Wilton Schools are from Visiting Nurse.

SB: I have such a high regard for school nurses who have to have a wide array and deep skill set. I think of them as, first and foremost, Emergency Room nurses because on many occasions kids visit the school nurse because maybe they fell on the playground, or they had an injury during the school day. School nurses need to have that expertise to identify whether or not the condition that the child is presenting with really needs Emergency Room transport or whether or not it is something that the school nurse herself can care for and have the child return to class as quickly as possible.

They also are great counselors. Sometimes when children, particularly the younger children, present to the school health office with, let’s say, a stomach ache, the school nurse will talk with the child and kind of draw out from the child if there is anything else going on. Is there something that is bothering a child, is a homework assignment getting to be too much? We hear from children that they are experiencing these physical symptoms, when in fact it is something unrelated to the physical symptom. School nurses are wonderful counselors in that regard.

School nurses also are concerned with the health and well-being of the staff of our schools. They provide immunization clinics for staff and all of the Board of Ed. We want to make sure that all of the staff is healthy so that they can continue in their role as educators.

Then, of course, school nurses have frequent contact with students’ parents and the students’ physicians regarding graphing changes in medication. A number of students are on medication that the graphs jump with and the school nurse’s impact with that has been invaluable so that the student can continue to get a good education and not miss out.

GMW:  In a much different area, there’s your Hospice Program.

SB:  Our Hospice Program provides physical, spiritual and emotional support to individuals and families who are facing life-altering illnesses. We again provide care from one hour a day to twenty-four hours a day.

We have found that most people, if they have the support of a hospice organization, they wish to have their loved one at home and their loved one wishes to be at home up until the final hours. We provide whatever support that might be unique to that family to make that possible.

We have a spiritual care provider, Karen Judd, a non-denominational minister who will also reach out to community clergies. Many families have their own wonderful connections to a community clergy. Karen will work with the clergy to make sure that the appropriate spiritual care that the individual or family wishes to have is provided.

Our nurses provide an explanation of symptoms that our patients may be experiencing. It could be that someone has a cancer diagnosis that is in the final stages, it could be someone with late-stage heart disease, or lung disease, some final form of dementia where people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease are dependent in all aspects of their care. We would craft an individual plan of care to meet that patient and the family’s comprehensive needs.

We also work with families very closely in terms of the grieving process when there are grieving children in the home. We care for patients of all ages, so if there are special needs of children who may be grieving for the loss of a parent or a grandparent we spend extra and focused time on children and that is a special process.

We also offer bereavement services for 13 months for families and caregivers who eave experienced a loss, because throughout that year following a loss, families are experiencing holidays for the first time without the loved one, the birthday of the loved one will come and go. Those milestones are often very emotional as you might imagine. We make sure that we reach out to families around those particular dates and certainly the anniversary of the loss of the loved one.

Annually we have the Celebration of Life. We honor those individuals who have passed in the last year. It’s a non- denominational service where we read the names of those who have passed in the prior year and it is an opportunity for people who are sharing grief and are in the bereavement process to be with others who are having the same experience. It is a very warm event and service. People give us feedback that it is a really moving service that is important to the grieving process.

GMW:  You provide such a wide range of services. How many nurses work for you?

SB:  We have approximately 200-210 employees. About 100 of those are our home health aides, and the other 110 are a combination of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, spiritual care providers, licensed clinical social workers, occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists. We also have grief and reason counselors for our hospice families.

We are very fortunate that we have an additional 100-120 volunteers who help with patient care at home, helping at our community clinics, helping with our fundraising events, working on our committees. We also have office volunteer opportunities for people who want to help with some of those activities, and then of course our Board of Directors.

Of course through Volunteer Services we have some folks at the Turnover Shop in Wilton, which has been a very kind and generous supporter of both us and the Wilton PTA. We have a couple of volunteers who have worked professionally in retail, and now volunteer at the Turnover Shop. We also have our own thrift shop in New Canaan. We only have one staff member there, the rest of the workers are volunteers and proceeds from both the thrift shop and the generosity of the Turnover Shop go to subsidize care so that more people can receive our care, the at-home aides and also our respite program.

GMW:  As a not-for-profit, fundraising is very important for Visiting Nurses, isn’t it?

SB: Each year we have a number of fundraising methods. One is our annual major fundraising event, it’s always a fun time. This May 1st we are having a cocktail party at a private home. Liz Cox, who is a good friend of the agency, has a magnificent home in Southport overlooking the harbor and we are going to have a cocktail couple of hours and hor’dourves. We are going to have a great magician, and musical entertainment by Chris Coogan, who is a wonderful vocal entertainer. And we are going to have a silent auction, wonderful and terrific items. So we want everyone to think about that for May 1, it will be a lot of fun, and the proceeds from that event will help us deliver our care to those in need.

GMW: For anyone who wants to volunteer or attend the fundraiser, how do they get in touch?

SB: We always post on our website. We have an active and dynamic website which provides information on our upcoming events and programs that we’re doing, the blood pressure clinic and education programs, other community events. We invite people to check out our website for the latest information. If people want to talk to us about anything on our websites or our events, they can certainly call and ask for me or speak to any of us, at 203.762.8958.

GMW: What is that one thing you want people to know when they see, Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Fairfield County? 

SB: I’d like people to think of us, to remember that we have a deep and rich history in our community, providing care for over 105 years. We provide a breadth of services, to people whether they are well or whether they are ill. And to not hesitate at all to call upon us with any questions or thoughts, and we welcome their calls and continued support in the community and in our work.