Caring from the heart: Nun dedicates career to HIV/AIDS patients

Sister Ruth Neely, who works at the Wright Center’s Ryan White HIV Clinic, laughs as she talks with a patient.

Sister Ruth Neely, CRNP, believes her work in the Wright Center’s Ryan White HIV Clinic gives her life meaning.

For over 24 years, Sister Ruth has been providing medical and compassionate care to patients across Northeastern Pennsylvania diagnosed with HIV and AIDs. While it may seem odd that a nun would work with patients diagnosed with a disease with so much stigma, Sister Ruth said she’s doing the work she was meant to do.

“I look at the person and not the disease,” she said. “My famous quote is, ‘I focus more on the person than HIV/AIDs, enabling the person through the experience of having HIV/AIDs to uncover a greater integrity and sense of direction than they had before the diagnosis.’ And that can be any diagnosis. And I believe in it.”

The 76 year old has been caring for people most of her life. At the age of 19, she joined the Sisters of Mercy order. From there, she was chosen to become a licensed practical nurse by Sister William Joseph Lydon, who was head of the order.

“She saw something in me,” said Sister Ruth.

As an LPN, she spent over two decades caring for aging nuns at various locations throughout Pennsylvania. In 1994, Sister Ruth began pursuing an education to become a nurse practitioner and graduated from Misericordia University at age 51. Then, in 1997 Sister Ruth was hired by Stephen Pancoast, MD, who is often credited with leading HIV/AIDs treatment in the area. As she put it, “the rest is history.” She said the Sisters of Mercy were supportive from the start.

As a certified registered nurse practitioner at the clinic, she helps care for more than 500 patients across seven counties in NEPA. The clinic offers confidential testing and care for patients living with HIV and AIDS. Patients can also receive medical and dental care, counseling, housing and food assistance and transportation to appointments and more through the clinic.

Sister Ruth focuses on personal connection, explaining “it’s a ministry, not a job.”

“I teach ‘CPR.’ If you give compassion, your presence and reassurance, people just respond to that,” she said. “That’s what we all want.”

To make sure her patients feel her love, Sister Ruth has handed out over 300 plastic hearts to her patients. She estimates she makes about 30 calls a day, most to check in with patients she works with. She says it’s just another way she remains committed to her patients.

“I’m on the phone all the time… It’s a real joy,” she said. “I jump out of bed every day.”

Her commitment to her patients doesn’t go unnoticed by those working alongside her at the clinic.

“Sister Ruth Neely has a passion for serving her patients and is truly devoted to them. She goes above and beyond to make sure they get everything they need, and we’re lucky to have her on our team,” said Shane Cobert, director of HIV and preventive services at The Wright Center for Community Health.

Her work was recognized on a national level in October, when Sister Ruth received recognition from the National Association of Community Health Centers during their “Year of the Nurse” campaign.

“Your expert medical care mixed with profound compassion have been critical to the lives of people living with HIV,” wrote Dr. Ron Yee, Chief Medical Officer of the National Association of Community Health Centers in his announcement letter to Sister Ruth.

But the nun is humble about the honor, giving the credit to her team at the clinic.

“We have a wonderful team,” she said. “I could not do it without the support of my staff.”

Sister Ruth understands the work she’s doing to support those with HIV is important. No stranger to disease, she beat breast cancer twice. Working through both diagnoses, she would receive chemo, eat lunch, and come to the Wright Center. She also made sure to schedule radiation early so she can come to work. Continuing to work helped her through her illnesses, even when the work is hard.

“You have to love what you’re doing,” she said, adding that when her patients pass away, she makes it a point to attend each funeral. “Not everybody can do this… Some days are hard.”

Now, Sister Ruth also helps administer COVID-19 vaccines and talks with her patients so they understand that they need to be gentle with themselves in these unprecedented times. She said the most important lesson she’s learned throughout her time working with HIV patients is never to judge.

“I have a passion, real passion,” she said. “Your life is not who you are, it’s what you do.”