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SCHOOL NURSES: Do a "Fantastic Job"

Forestville, Maryland

AFSCME Local 2250 members Bernice McClure and Geri Merkey are professional nurses in the Prince George’s County Public School System. Although both have different job duties, they have one main thing in common: both enjoy working with children.

A 12-year licensed practical nurse, McClure has worked in hospitals, medical centers, doctors’ offices, and for the past year full time at the Hillcrest Heights Special Center. The center is an educational facility for nearly 100 multi-handicapped youngsters, ranging from 5 to 21 years old. “My children—as I call them—are sick children,” McClure said, noting that 60 to 70 percent suffer from cerebral palsy, seizures, respiratory problems, and congenital anomalies.

Initially licensed in Oklahoma and relicensed in Maryland, McClure said she must constantly monitor the children, 10 of whom are tube fed, 15 on medication, and many others who require special nursing care.

With the tube-fed children, “I have to be aware of how they’re being fed,” she said, noting that there are two types of tube systems, one through a gastronomy tube, the other via a flat button—both devices are surgically implanted. She has to position the child to avoid coughing or gagging.

In cases involving seizures, McClure has often resorted to calling 911. “Over the past year, I’ve had quite a few 911’s, but this year, so far, only one.” She explained that after the child was taken to the hospital, she notified the parent and kept in touch with the principal, who had accompanied the child to the hospital.

"I gave that parent my home telephone number,” said McClure. Later that night the parent did call, informing McClure that the child had been admitted to the hospital in fair condition. “The child’s parent and I were in constant communication,” she said. “I just can’t help it, I get emotionally involved. . .I’ve really gotten attached to the children. I see them daily, I make rounds, I walk up and down the halls with them, so they’re like my own children,” said the mother of four.

McClure recalled another student, a little girl who wasn’t at school one particular day. “This student is one of those that’s always at school. She’s really bubbly with huge bright eyes. And, she’s a twice-a-day tube feeder,” McClure said.

"This child always comes up to me, jumps on the bed in the office and heads right for those books that I read to her while I feed her,” she said.

McClure called the child’s parent and was told that the child had been sick all weekend and had to be rushed to the hospital. I always feel better when I know that the child—as in this case—is doing a lot better and will return to school soon. These children are a part of my life,” she said, “I just can’t turn off caring for them.”

McClure said that caring for sick children entails working a very busy day, one that often does not include lunch. “It [lunch] is just not a priority.”

Registered nurse Geri Merkey, who works part time at Glenn Dale Elementary School, said that she and McClure have very different experiences within the school system. “I work with a basically healthy population of elementary school children, and my role is almost the other swing of the pendulum. I help maintain health and safety so children have the best environment in which to learn.”

Both nurses do screening for vision, hearing, and vital statistics. And both must fill out medical forms authorized by doctors and parents before dispensing any medications.

"I also make sure that the children are current with their immunizations,” said Merkey, who earned her degree from Parkland College in Illinois and has worked for the past 13 years in various nursing fields including perinatal and maternity.

"Although I enjoyed working in high risk fields of nursing, it carried long hours and a fair amount of stress,” said Merkey who worked in California before coming to Maryland with her family.

"I chose the job with school children because it would afford me a rewarding career and one that would allow me to enjoy raising my school-aged children,” Merkey said.

As a professional, Merkey works alone. “I make decisions on what I see in front of me, and I don’t need to refer to anyone else.”

(Nurse McClure works alone much of the time, but she has access to a registered nurse who visits her center once a week and is called upon whenever McClure needs her.)

Merkey makes assessments whether students are ill enough to go home or simply have the sniffles and can return to their classrooms. “In certain cases, I also notify parents, especially in case of injury or emergency.”

She also administers medications: 14 students take ritalin (medication for hyperactive children with attention deficit disorders) and six students manage their asthma with an inhaler.

Some of Merkey’s work involves classroom instruction. “I talk to children from first grade on what a germ is and preventive measures to ensure health, to sixth graders taking the family life unit that includes reproduction. A lot of the time, I’m really surprised at how really knowledgeable these youngsters are about their health and enthusiastic about learning more.”

Merkey said as far as health concerns go, she’s seen a lot of head lice, flu, and pink eye diseases this past year.

On the other hand, McClure has seen a rise of medically fragile children. “Some are born with defects, brain injuries, while other problems are due to other illnesses with contributing factors,” McClure said.

Both McClure and Merkey also have medical aspirations. McClure wants to study and train as a registered nurse. Merkey is considering becoming a nurse practitioner. “A nurse practitioner has more leeway with making diagnoses, prescribing medicine, and working in a more detailed assessment skills arena.”

But, for now, both are considered to be doing a “fantastic job,” according to nursing supervisor Carole Pinckney. “McClure and Merkey are among the many front-line workers who deliver and manage direct care to the students they serve.”

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