Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper includes the washing of the feet. Meant to symbolize Jesus’ request that his disciples be “servants of all,” parish priests wash 12 parishioners’ feet as the congregation looks on. For many, this may be just one more tradition in the Catholic Church, but not so for Ellen Krueger, a registered nurse.
According to Krueger, it is a scene she repeats throughout the year as she washes and cares for the feet of the homeless, chronically mental ill and those suffering from drug addiction that come seeking help at St. Ben’s Clinic, Milwaukee.
“Checking for problems with their feet, trimming toenails, trimming calluses, finding out if there are any other foot problems that need to be investigated at the clinic,” she explained, noting the procedures take place not only at the Rescue Mission in Milwaukee on Holy Thursday, but year-round at St. Ben’s Clinic.
“At St. Ben’s, we do care for those on the margin of society,
Name: Ellen Krueger
Occupation: Registered nurse
Parish: St. Alphonsus, Greendale
Book recently read: “Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor,” by Jesuit Fr. Gary N. Smith
Favorite movie: “We’re No Angels” (A 1955 film starring Humphrey Bogart)
Favorite quotations: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato, and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” – The Golden Rule
(Catholic Herald photo by Amy E. Taylor)
so it’s kind of like – especially with the outreach – following the model of Jesus.Being willing to work with the lepers, with others who are(commonly) defined as being unclean or unworthy or whatever. So, that’s kind of what we try to do – get the people on the margins of society and work with them.
“By doing the outreach, we’re going to their place of comfort to build a relationship with them there. So, if I see them at a meal site or if I see them at a shelter, we’re seeing them first of all on their home turf. We just build a relationship and trust with them, and we can kind of refer them into a clinic situation,” she added.
St. Ben’s is a primary care clinic providing care to homeless people and those unable to access traditional medical care. As a department of Columbia St. Mary, St. Ben’s receives much of its support through the Columbia St. Mary’s health system and works in partnership with Health Care for the Homeless, Milwaukee, and St. Benedict the Moor Ministries.
While those who enter the clinic doors can always expect this kind of medical attention, many of the homeless and mentally ill who need healing the most learn where to receive it when Krueger makes her rounds to shelters and soup kitchens in an effort to “meet them where they are.”
“We are kind of available to answer questions, check blood pressures,” she said, explaining that they set up a small examination area. “The goal is to meet with the people and find out what their health care needs are, and direct them in the right direction to get what they need. It’s not to set up mini-clinics or provide medical services or things like that, but it’s a resource to connect people with available resources so they know what’s available to them.”
A native of Milwaukee, Krueger attended the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Soon after, she and husband Tim lived in Washington, D.C., for a couple years during the mid-‘80s, but moved back to Milwaukee before their first son was born in 1988.
Although Krueger could find a less stressful job, she said she wouldn’t trade her position at the clinic for anything.
Her work with St. Ben’s Clinic began several years ago.
“I remember once seeing an ad in the paper for St. Ben’s,” she explained. “They were looking for somebody just a couple hours a week, and at that time that definitely didn’t fit into a schedule I had at all, and I thought, ‘Gosh, that would be kind of nice to do.’”
Soon after, Krueger worked at the Salvation Army’s shelter clinic, which led her to work at St. Ben’s by way of the Columbia St. Mary’s team of “floating pool” nurses. From then on, she was hooked.
“By working at the Salvation Army clinic, I had an idea of what the population was like, and they asked me if I could do some hours over at the St. Ben’s Clinic. I knew I liked that niche, and gradually my hours as a pool nurse over at the hospital turned into more hours at St. Ben’s,” she explained.
According to the St. Ben’s Web site, in 2007 the clinic provided 932 clinical encounters at the Cathedral Center, Milwaukee, and 5,532 encounters at the main clinic at 9th and State streets. Clinic patients also received 4,142 social work services during the year.
“A lot of it is doing what I would want done for my family,” she said of the clinic work. “I think everyone should get the same care that I would get, and I think this is one way of making sure that a lot of the people who might not have access to the same kind of care that I do, to make sure that they do have the access to it, to really try and help them get that, and get it in a respectful way, too.
“The homeless have so much hardship and so many roadblocks, (they) just have so much trouble navigating systems sometimes,” she said. “Whether it be their mental illness or not knowing the systems, or not being able to transport themselves, or not having a phone to make appointments, there are just so many obstacles. If we could just help them navigate through some of those and make life a little easier for things that we take for granted.”
In addition to patient care, the time that Krueger and the social and caseworkers, meal site employees and medical staff members take to learn about and listen to their patients is an important aspect of the job.
“Just giving them that one-to-one contact for a period of time,” she said. “… At that point, while you’re talking to them, they are important to you and you are important to them … having someone use their name and know who they are is something they’re not really used to.”
When asked how she lives her faith each day, Krueger recalled mission trips several years ago with her parish, St. Alphonsus, Greendale.
“I don’t know that the role of a ‘mission’ is in my belief ‘Let’s go preach.’ I think that going there, I was a Catholic and I was from a Catholic organization, and just by our actions (people there) saw that we were people of faith,” she said. “Our actions of how we treat people speaks a lot more than a lot of the other things that you could do.”