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The long road home: Ron Steele gets back on his feet with help from a community nurse
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The long road home: Ron Steele gets back on his feet with help from a community nurse

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LEBANON — Five years ago, Ron Steele was a business owner, operating Steele Design, a sewing and alterations company in downtown Lebanon.

He ran the business for 20 years with his wife, Glenda, starting the company after spending many years working as a machinist, specifically a tool and die maker.

But when she died in August 2019 at age 55, life became more difficult for Steele, who is now 73. His health began to deteriorate and he lost contact with many of the people that had been his customers. Those customers included several mid-valley law enforcement agencies and various motorcycle clubs. Steele Design regularly sewed on patches for these clients, along with other work.

After her death, he lived alone in an old motorhome which was parked on a friend’s property near Sweet Home. The RV had electricity, but the heater didn’t work properly and it was not connected to water or sewer services.

Looking back, Steele recognizes that he was struggling following the death of his wife, with whom he shared 35 years of marriage.

“It knocked me down,” Steele said. “We planned on another 35 years, but it wasn’t in the cards.”

Steele, however, had reconnected with his local congregation, Am HaSefer, which is based in Lebanon. During a conversation one day, he mentioned to Mike Carlson that his leg was really bothering him. Steele pulled up his pant leg and showed it to Carlson, who saw that it was covered in open sores.

That small action started a series of events which has put Steele’s life back on track.

Carlson went home and told his wife what he had seen. Deb Fell-Carlson is a registered nurse and one of the leaders in the Faith Community Health Network.

She asked if they could visit Steele in his home so she could take a look at his leg. She saw that it was covered in ulcers and his feet were so swollen they spilled over the sides of his slippers.

“He was in despair and he didn’t even know who to ask or even what to ask,” Fell-Carlson said. “If he hadn’t pulled up his pant leg, I don’t know that we wouldn’t still not know what was happening in his life.”

The visit to Steele’s motorhome also made it clear that he needed much more than a health check-up.

“We had no idea what his housing was like,” Fell-Carlson said. “He said he lived in a motorhome. We thought he was sitting at home at night watching TV with his feet up, making meals on his little stove. It shook me up a little bit. I just hadn’t asked.”

In the months since Fell-Carlson visited Steele she has helped him:

  • Get into a wound care program.
  • Receive proper treatment for his Type 2 diabetes.
  • Sign up for better Medicare benefits.
  • Get fitted for new dentures.
  • Receive new eyeglasses.
  • Move out of his motorhome and into transitional housing.
  • Fill out applications for a place in subsidized housing.

This has taken hours of work, and Fell-Carlson has attended many of these appointments with Steele. This is often the kind of work that must be done to help those who are homeless or living in substandard housing.

“You do have to case-manage each person because every person’s situation is different,” Fell-Carlson said.

Steele is grateful for her assistance. All of this improvement in his life came from programs which already exist but he had not accessed.

“The average person out there in my situation is not going to be able to handle or get the help they need on their own because they don’t know it’s there. They don’t know where to go to get it. You don’t know what’s available,” Steele said.

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Fell-Carlson said that as programs and services have moved online, they have left many people behind. Many seniors who need these services lack Internet access or are not comfortable using computers.

In addition, the programs themselves are often unreasonably difficult to access, or in the case of insurance, sometimes seem designed to confuse people. She recalled helping Steele sign up for an insurance benefit only to be told his account had been deactivated. It took hours and multiple phone calls to fix the problem.

“I cannot imagine how the average senior citizen can navigate our health care system,” Fell-Carlson said. “There are a lot of people out there that just don’t have the computer skills.”

She also believes that the health care system can lose patience with older clients. This opinion is based on personal experience.

Now retired, Fell-Carlson, 66, spent her entire career working in all aspects of the system. She started out as a nurse in a small rural hospital, worked at a psychiatric hospital for the Veterans Administration, served with the Department of Defense as an occupational health nurse manager for the South Dakota National Guard, led an employee health program for Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, and ended her career working with SAIF Corp. leading a program on employee health.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from South Dakota State University and has a master’s degree in public health from Oregon State University.

This experience makes her a great advocate for people such as Steele. He had previously sought help for his leg issues, but didn’t get the assistance he needed.

“I had been to the doctor, and all they could say was keep your feet up,” Steele said.

Fell-Carlson was able to help Steele get the proper help by attending appointments with him. She remembered what a doctor told her during one of those visits.

“He said, ‘If you look through his chart, the way they’ve charted on him, he looks like a bum. But he’s not a bum at all,’” Fell-Carlson recalled. “There’s that piece of how the medical system stereotypes people. He feels he was put on a shelf.”

Looking back, Steele can’t believe how low he sank. He is proud of his years as a local businessman and the relationships he and his wife built in Lebanon.

“I know a lot of people around town,” he said.

For Fell-Carlson, it is a reminder that any of us might find ourselves in a place where we need help.

“I think that just goes to show … it can happen to anyone,” she said.

Fell-Carlson wants to train other nurses to provide this same kind of assistance in their congregations. There used to be a thriving community of faith community nurses in the mid-valley, but it withered about 20 years ago. She is trying to bring it back.

After retiring, she took the basic course in faith community nursing in 2017. Over the next two years, she took more courses and is now certified as an instructor. She teaches a course in faith community nursing through the Linn-Benton Community College extended learning program.

Sixteen students took the last class, which ended in November. Eight of the students were from the mid-valley, seven were from the Pacific Northwest and one took part in the Zoom class from North Carolina. LBCC is the only institution in Oregon which offers the course, Fell-Carlson said, adding that faith community nursing is recognized by the American Nurses Association as a practice specialty.

These nurses can:

  • Offer blood pressure screening.
  • Run health promotion campaigns.
  • Oversee transitional care as patients return home following a hospitalization.
  • Attend appointments.
  • Connect people with community support.

“The research has shown time and time again that men especially tend not to use health care as readily as women do, but they will talk to a nurse. And they will especially talk to a nurse that they have known and trust,” Fell-Carlson said. “The nurse is trusted and the nurse is accessible. You can ask a simple question.”

That assistance is exactly what Steele needed.

“It’s a miracle,” Steele said, describing Fell-Carlson as “concerned, caring, seriously caring. Stepping in and actually doing something about it and not just talk. If there’s a problem, she’s right there to take care of it.”

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