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Nurse, deacon and Woman of Excellence to be honored May 14

By Joanne Beck
Diane Cox with Bishop Sean Rowe
The Rev. Deacon Diane Cox of Batavia with Bishop Sean Rowe.
Submitted Photo

Diane Cox of Batavia seemed to always know her life was headed into nursing, though it was a crooked path by way of working in clerical and as a candy striper and pursuing health education before becoming a registered and faith community nurse, she says.

Cox, who grew up in Albion the daughter and first-generation college student of what she calls a multicultural household — a Polish dad and American Indian mom — obtained her master’s in health education before someone suggested that she go into nursing.

“I wanted to go into health education because I wanted to work with people who really want to make a behavior modification change, and their decision to physically make some changes emotionally, make some changes socially, make some changes spiritually, make some changes in their life, to have a complete model of overall health and wellness. And so I went into education for that,” she said, moving on to what came after she became a nurse. “I worked for six years as a chemo nurse at a private clinic practice. And, you know, having that cancer diagnosis to begin with is a nightmare. And then the hope that these patients give, and you're there a part of their journey, to bring them their hope, and provide them their hope. And sometimes the hope comes to an end, and then you help them cross that journey over to their next spiritual life. I had a spiritual moment. And so from there, I was called to the ordained ministry.”

Her work in both of those fields — the combined effort of those fields — have made Cox one of Rochester Business Journal’s Women of Excellence 2024 Awards honorees. All of them will be recognized during an awards dinner on May 14 at the Riverside Convention Center, 123 E. Main St., Rochester.

As a teenager, Cox was drawn to the human services field and be a support to patients, “to hold their hand” and effect tangible change in their lives, she said. However, after getting her master’s in health education, there weren’t jobs available for what she really wanted to do, so she ended up going to BOCES for her licensed practical nurse degree and then obtained her registered nurse degree from Brockport State College.

Cox had also been a lay person in the Episcopal church and was being called for many duties. It was during this time period that she had a revelation.

“When they say the Holy Spirit comes to you, the Holy Spirit does come to you,” she said. “It is a process spiritually, where you walk through this journey of prayerfulness.”

That process becomes more regimented, in that a committee of people get involved, including the bishop, “who talks to you and works with you spiritually with God, and you make a decision to be ordained,” she said. 

Cox made that decision to become an ordained deacon, which precedes becoming a priest, bishop and then presiding bishop for those that choose those next steps. Cox’s heart was pulled toward serving through pastoral care and as a faith community nurse, with ultimate goals to support the underserved, feed the poor and take care of children and the oppressed, and people who don’t otherwise have a voice in the world, “so we advocate for them,” she said. 

She began to work at Genesee County Jail in 2016 as a nurse and as a deacon, believing “we’re all children of God.”

“How you believe or what you believe, it’s not for me to decide. I don’t see the biases in the color of people’s skin or language. I’ve worked with people of Pakistan at Rochester General; they did not speak English. It’s just through eye contact and body language. You can still give love and hope and compassion to people; it doesn’t matter whether you speak English, there’s a way to communicate.”

Despite working with many incarcerated individuals, “I’ve never felt unsafe,” she said. Inmates have treated her respectfully, and in return, even when she’s known their criminal records, “I step back, and they’re human beings.”

“A lot of times I do know their crimes; that’s not my job, my job is to see they’re medically taken care of, and spiritually taken care of, and to be treated as a human being with dignity,” she said.

Jail Superintendent William Zipfel has worked with Cox since she was a nurse there, and watched as she filled in when the full-time RN retired in May 2022. She was a “true local angel of mercy,” he said.

“This meant that Diane was our only nurse, serving what is typically a rather medically needy population of jail inmates. She served a population of anywhere from 45 to 70 inmates on a daily basis. This included doing intake health assessments, daily sick calls, making appointments for x-rays, medical specialists, dentist visits and a host of other needs. This also was during the period of the beginning of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “Diane worked daily with our inmate population and our staff to ensure the best quality response to their health care needs and safety. She did daily COVID testing of symptomatic inmates and those coming in on intake. She helped develop our response plan and oversaw the care of those inmates that tested positive. When she herself tested positive she worked from home to ensure appointments were make and kept and necessary prescriptions were ordered.

Cross made by GC Jail inmate
A cross made by an incarcerated individual for Diane Cox, she says.
Photo submitted.

“When COVID hit, visitation, church services and other programs were closed down at the jail,” he said. “With those services shut down, Diane stepped up and, with her ecumenical training and ordination in the Episcopal Church, ministered to the inmates spiritual needs as well. She held church services and helped council inmates who wished to have spiritual guidance.”

Cox works with end-of-life patients throughout Genesee and Wyoming counties under the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, in addition to being subcontracted per diem by Genesee County Jail.

“Since ordination, Deacon Diane has combined her role in the church with her role as a healthcare provider, providing counsel to a number of people in various stages of life, with special attention to the chronically ill and dying. Diane has taken a congregation in Stafford New York through significant losses and has earned their trust as they grieve their losses,” The Rev. Cathy Dempesy-Sims, Canon for Pastoral Care and Congregational Support, said. “Deacon Diane is a testament to the diaconate and her medical knowledge provides comfort and advice to scores of people in the Genesee Region.”

Cox also works part-time for Marktec Products in Batavia, where her husband Bill is CEO. He is “very proud of Diane for her accomplishments and this recognition by the RBJ,” he said.

“She spends many volunteer hours each week fulfilling her role of deacon, as well as her RN work at the County Jail, and at Marktec,” he said. “She is also a great wife.”

How does she manage her own emotions while dealing with death and the intensity of inmate issues? Dogs, food and entertaining, for starters.

“I am an avid chef, I can make you a gourmet hotdog if you want … I can put on a seven-course dinner and not be stressed. I like cooking, gardening, I exercise, go on retreats. I have three rescue dogs,” she said. “I do take me time.”

She plans to further her education by studying to become an end-of-life doula, someone that can help people at the end of their lives just as birthing doulas help with the beginning.

“So, bringing people awareness of what end of life care is and how, no, it’s not easy, but it can be talked about, like planning a birth and everybody’s excited for the birth process, and there are birthing doulas, and so we’re now coming full circle to have dying or death doulas. It’s a preparation.”

Her mom will be 92 and has a seat in the audience to watch her daughter receive this award. It's a humbling and "wow" moment, and not what Cox does it for, she said.

"I just do what I'm called to do, I listen to my heart," she said. "My mom will be quite honored to see my achievements."

Bishop, Diane and Bill Cox
Bishop Sean Rowe, Diane and Bill Cox during her ordination.
Submitted Photo
Diane Cox at Juneteenth
2023 File Photo of Diana Leiker and Diane Cox, deacons at St. James Episcopal Church.
Photo by Howard Owens.

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