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Health justice as charity: Sister Eileen

Sister Eileen Eager NP
I am who I am. I am not here to judge. I can’t separate charity from justice. It is all contained as one thing.
Health justice as charity: Sister Eileen

Sister Eileen Eager, NP is an Adult Nurse Practitioner and a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, a Roman Catholic congregation. Sr. Eileen’s career in farmworker health spans four decades. In 1980, she attended a leadership conference for religious women, and it included a tour of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She and four other Sisters felt called to serve in that place, and so began a seasonal work program with migrant farmworkers. Initially, they migrated too, going to West Virginia when the farmworkers left, then returning to Princess Ann when the season began anew. 

MCN Eager

The five Sisters were nurse practitioners who provided care in the federally funded migrant health program by day, but who never saw their work limited to a single organization or job description. Their call was bigger than that, and it meant that they created relationships, collaborated with others, and initiated services where there were none. Sr. Eileen described how important it has been to partner with health departments, hospitals, food banks, and legal advocates.

Sr. Eileen hates the spotlight and would prefer that any story be, not about her, but about the work that is being done and the people who need our partnership. After many years at health centers, she and her colleagues moved to Seton Center at Convent Station, NJ. Sister Cecilia, well known to many of us in migrant health, has continued to work alongside Sr. Eileen as they assist migrant and seasonal laborers at Seton Center.

The work is different every day. They help people obtain driver’s licenses, apply for sliding fee services, and navigate the court system. They run a food support program that requires just four dollars per month from the recipient and is not based on residency. The week she was interviewed, Srs. Eileen and Cecelia had been identifying children eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and helping them get everything in order. They had two people who needed help getting coverage for hospital services and several who relied on Sr. Cecilia’s interpretation to address legal issues.

Sr. Eileen said the workers really don’t know the distinction between Seton Center and a clinic. They just know that they will be received with care and directed to services they need. I asked Sr. Eileen how she views her work. She said it is fundamentally about being present. She doesn’t want to be emblematic of a cause, but of a person who is in relationship with others. “I am who I am,” she said. “I am not here to judge. I can’t separate charity from justice. It is all contained as one thing.”

As one who looked for Sr. Eileen’s welcoming gaze at many migrant health conferences over the years, it is clear that her presence is a healing and life-giving force, both for the mobile poor and for those of us who work in this field. 

30 CLINICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE is a project celebrating Migrant Clinicians Network's 30th anniversary through the life stories of 30 clinicians making a difference in migrant health. Learn more about Migrant Clinicians Network.

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