In celebration of MOM’s 25th anniversary, we visit with first nursing director in Arizona

As part of MOM AZ’s 25th anniversary celebration, we’re visiting with past and present volunteers, patients, staff and community partners who have been integral to MOM’s mission over the years. We recently connected with Elena Konerko, who was MOM AZ’s first nursing director from 1997 to 2007.

Mission of Mercy’s expansion into Arizona was born as a result of a divine call by foundress Gianna Talone-Sullivan, Pharm D, and the dedication of a handful of MOM’s earliest volunteers. At Gianna’s invitation, Elena Konerko and members of a prayer group from St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale took a trip to Emmitsburg, Maryland, that inspired several of MOM’s first volunteers, including Konerko.

“Many of our initial group of volunteers took a pilgrimage to Emmitsburg to see the Maryland MOM clinic in action,” recalled Elena Konerko, MOM AZ’s first nursing director. “It was providential that most of the pilgrimage group offered to volunteer for Mission of Mercy, including our first medical director. It was incredible how God prepared this group to be part of its foundation in Arizona.”

 

A calling that almost didn’t happen

Ironically, Konerko’s journey with MOM almost didn’t happen. When she was asked to be nursing director, she and her husband, Henry “Hank” (who eventually went on to become the first CEO of MOM), were living in New Mexico after Hank’s recent job change. She recalls, “I almost had to say no.”

But the stars aligned for them to move back to Arizona, which allowed Elena to take on the role of MOM’s first nursing director in Arizona. Her background in public health and home care in Rhode Island and Connecticut provided a solid foundation for this position.

“We were very grassroots initially. We outfitted the van at my house in Paradise Valley and set up the pharmacy, and drove to the clinics together in the van,” Konerko said. “That time was really the highlight of my life.”

One of Elena’s duties was visiting local churches in the area to talk about MOM and recruit volunteers. By the time Elena retired, there were more than 100 volunteers that MOM relied on at its various clinic locations.

“The whole concept of MOM, the type of medicine that we do – it’s more than medicine really,” Elena said. “People come here looking for something to heal them physically, but most of the time they need something spiritually to feel connected.”

 

Changing lives one patient at a time

Elena remembers several patient stories that really tugged at her heart strings. One was a young boy who came to the Mesa clinic with his mother. His mom said he wouldn’t eat or go to school. All his vitals were good, so the doctor told her to keep an eye on him and write down any symptoms and what he ate and to come back. He also gave the boy a teddy bear.

“The next week, his mom came in and reported that he went back to school the very next day,” Konerko said. “She told us that he had show and tell at school and was embarrassed he didn’t have anything to share, so he didn’t want to go. But the teddy bear changed things for him.”

Konerko also recalls another patient who came in a wheelchair and told them that his leg didn’t work and he hadn’t been able to walk in a month. It turns out he had an artificial leg that was broken, but he didn’t have insurance, so he couldn’t get a new one. One of Elena’s nurses was handy and asked for permission to run to ACE Hardware. She returned a little while later and fixed the man’s artificial leg, and he left the clinic walking!

“The right nurse was there at the right time,” Elena said. “That’s what MOM is all about.”