By Joni Moths Mueller
Mackenzie Conn met a queen last summer or maybe she was a princess with yellow, pink and blue barrettes pinning a crown of pigtails around her head. She sat on her throne or maybe it was a miniature hospital bed, and from there she commanded those who frankly adore her.
“She’s the queen of La Rabida,” Conn said, introducing her royal patient. “Ruby, may I see your belly, please?”
It’s a routine morning for Ruby, whose complicated mix of chronic health issues is so complex she has lived at La Rabida for most of her life. That’s seven years in a hospital. Can you imagine?
But Ruby is a pixie who was also given a glorious gift. She is sunshine. She lightens everyone’s mood, every day.
When Conn asks to see her belly, Ruby is ready. She helps the nurses raise her pink and purple pajama top so that Conn can access the gastric tube. Then, two nurses cradle Ruby while Conn gives her a shot.
“All done,” Conn announces.
“All done? Shoo! Good job, Mackenzie. I’m so proud of you,” Ruby says while wiping away tears. What do you say when a child who has suffered so much delivers a pep talk and a pat on the back?
Getting to work for kids
This world where children with complex, sometimes rare, often unsolvable medical conditions live for weeks or months or years is opened up to two nursing students every summer thanks to alumni Dan and Susan (Cronin) Real, both Bus Ad ’81. The Reals were so stirred by La Rabida’s mission that they found a way to connect it to Marquette’s College of Nursing, another place with a mission they admire.
This unique partnership began eight years ago and really came about because Dan and Susan wove their desire to help La Rabida build a professional nursing staff with their desire to provide financial assistance to nursing students who might struggle under the weight of tuition costs.
“We saw this as an opportunity to help both causes,” says Dan, who sits on the hospital's board of directors. “We’re very involved and supportive of the mission of La Rabida ... the ultimate safety net for kids in Chicago. Also, both of us are Marquette grads, and we wanted to find a way to help kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to Marquette.”
Dan and Susan brought the College of Nursing a plan for endowing a competitive scholarship for two students to work on the floor of La Rabida the summer between their junior and senior years. The Daniel Real and Susan Cronin Real Endowed Scholarship awards $6,000 in tuition in return for 10 weeks of work as a nurse extern. The hospital also pays the nurse externs an hourly wage. While the hospital has access to the two nursing students, the staff runs them through a rigorous training experience. They are oriented thoroughly so that they can jump right in on about day three as caregivers, working under the watchful eye of a supervising nurse.
The result of this partnership may surpass what Dan and Susan hoped for, much less expected. Their absolute pie-in-the-sky vision was that nursing students who are trained in this environment would return one day as full-fledged nurses who want to be members of the La Rabida team.
“The last couple of years we’ve had lunch with the candidates and we go to a Marquette game together,” Susan says. “When they talk about their experience, several have said it was life-changing.”
Searching for students who are a good fit
But does the experience produce nurses for La Rabida? Last summer’s scholarship holders, Conn and Jaclyn Migliarese, who are natives of Illinois, were attracted to the opportunity to work in Chicago in a small hospital setting. Both expressed a deep desire to give back to the community they call home. They worked their way through the application process that begins on campus with an interview during which Dr. Kerry Kosmoski-Goepfert, associate dean of nursing, probes the applicants’ intentions. This is a very special scholarship with a very intentional objective, and Kosmoski-Goepfert needs to know the students she forwards for second-stage interviews are a good fit.
“Although students need to be strong academically, they must also demonstrate a passion and commitment to work with underserved children who suffer with chronic illnesses,” explains Kosmoski-Goepfert. “This passion and commitment is easily detected during a personal interview when applicants are asked why they want to work at La Rabida and where they see themselves in five years post-graduation. It is during this portion of the application process that students’ personal stories surface, stories that help me better understand their level of compassion and why they are truly seeking the scholarship.”
The application process was definitely nerve-wracking, admits Migliarese, who thinks her sense of compassion came across, maybe giving her an edge.
Migliarese knows children’s hospitals. She spent a good part of her childhood in one, sitting beside her brother, Christian, who was born with spina bifida. It may have been the experience of traveling alongside a brother with a dramatic medical issue or just a natural inclination and curiosity, but early in life Migliarese knew she’d track into a health care career.
“I saw the way people interacted with him, and I wanted to be part of that experience for other people,” she remembers. Initially, Migliarese thought she’d become a physical therapist, but a conversation with Christian during Migliarese’s freshman year changed her mind. “I sat down with him one day and asked, ‘Who made the most impact on you when you were in the hospital?’” she recalls. “He said it was the nurses, and that’s what really sold me.” She transferred into the College of Nursing for sophomore year.
During her interview with La Rabida Director of Education and Inpatient Nursing Sylvia Williams, Migliarese got a good feeling for the hospital instantly. “I’ve done clinicals, but this was my first externship. They seemed to really foster a learning environment, to focus on teaching new nurses,” Migliarese says.
Her first day, Migliarese was on the floor for just hours before a Code Blue called a medical team into action to resuscitate a sick baby. That experience strengthened her resolve to care for sick children. She remembers Jose, a 14-month-old who was born with his intestines, stomach and liver in a sack outside his body. Migliarese cared for Jose and worked closely with his mother, who was present at the hospital every day. She worked with a 6-year-old who suffered burns to 35 percent of his body after his clothing caught fire from a candle. Scary sometimes, yes, and also so right.
“I absolutely loved it,” says Migliarese. “I felt a rush being with the kids, felt I was able to use my skills. It’s one thing to read about in a book, but the hands-on experience was incredible.”
Conn pursued the scholarship because she likes La Rabida’s combination of service and nursing. It connects to her ambitious nature. Conn also knows children’s hospitals firsthand, but she knows them from her own history as a patient. She began competitive figure skating on national and international circuits when she was 3 years old. “I was good,” she says. But being good meant lots of training, which also meant plenty of injuries and weeks spent in hospital beds while sprains healed or bones fused. Being a patient, Conn says, showed her what it takes to be a good nurse. “That’s what drew me to this scholarship program,” she says. “I wanted to test it out and see if that’s what I want to do. And, pretty much from the first day, I knew pediatrics is what I want to do.”
Conn and Migliarese finished their externships and moved on to senior year academics and final clinicals. They will graduate in May as members of the Class of 2014, and that’s when Dan and Susan and La Rabida will see if the scholarship pays out as they hope with the latest two externs.
There is evidence that the partnership works. La Rabida’s nursing staff already includes Marquette nurses Vanessa Sauk, Brooke Helms and Caroline Tomala. All three came to the staff after externships made possible by the endowed scholarship.
Chances appear good for that number to grow. “I feel much more prepared to go out and look for a real job,” says Migliarese, “and I’ll definitely apply at La Rabida if they have an opening.” Conn agrees: “I can’t wait to get back there.”
*All patient names in this story were changed to protect privacy.
A hospital with a special mission
La Rabida Children’s Hospital was designed to feel like a cruise ship for kids. For evidence, look at the “welcome aboard” sign at the front door or the 24 “cabins” with portholes for windows that line the corridor of the inpatient floor or the Lake Michigan shore-line churning on its periphery. Nurses and other medical staff make up the “crew.” Don’t look for patients because the “passengers”— children up to age 18 — mostly come from Chicago’s most underserved communities.
The hospital provides inpatient and outpatient services to about 7,500 children each year, many suffering with what will be lifelong medical conditions. Love is certainly evident, but so is every advantage seen in the much larger hospitals and health care centers sprinkled around the Chicago-area landscape. The kids benefit in untold ways from a collection of medical staff and administrators who believe every sick or hurt child deserves excellent medical care. They receive it here — care for chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, seizure disorders, sickle cell disease or developmental disabilities. They have access to rehabilitation services after surgery or for burns, brain injury, abuse or other trauma. Experts here also train caregivers to work with children dependent on technology. Ninety-four percent of the children at La Rabida are covered by Medicaid. No one is turned away, regardless of ability to pay.— JMM