SON recognized for outstanding work in medically underserved Delta school district
Published on Thursday, March 21, 2019
By: Kate Royals
For most of the 820 students who live in Sharkey and Issaquena counties, a visit to a pediatrician means a 40-mile or more drive.
Neither of the counties has a pediatrician and both are in need of more health care providers, in addition to being one of the poorest regions in the one of the poorest states in the nation.
But thanks to a partnership between the University of Mississippi School of Nursing and the South Delta School District called the Mercy Delta Express Project, children and teens can visit a school-based clinic staffed by nurses and nurse practitioners from the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
The care they receive can run the gamut from routine to life-changing – and sometimes lifesaving.
Ramona Brock of Rolling Fork credits the clinics for giving her a year with her daughter she might not have otherwise gotten.
In 2012, Brock’s 8th grade daughter Ebonie Jones was receiving an annual check-up from Kathy Rhodes, nurse practitioner and assistant professor of nursing, with the help of Kayla Carr, also an assistant professor of nursing. They discovered a mass in her abdomen. Rhodes immediately called Brock, and after further testing and emergency surgery at the Children’s Hospital, Brock and her daughter learned she had a rare form of cancer known as a desmoplastic small round cell tumor.
It was extremely aggressive and had already spread to her colon, doctors said.
That next year, Jones passed away at the young age of 15.
“(The clinic) gave us a whole other year with our baby,” Brock said tearfully, describing her daughter as loving and wise beyond her years.
Brock, who was in nursing school when her daughter was diagnosed, now works as an LPN in the high school clinic.
“I tell people all the time that even though my baby’s not physically here, she’s still blessing me … It brings joy to my heart that I am working in the clinic now,” said Brock. “I look at all those children I work with as my children.”
Last spring, during a sports screening for a high schooler, the nurses discovered he had a resting heart rate of 42 beats per minute and had been experiencing shortness of breath during practice. After he was referring to a local doctor who performed an EKG that was abnormal, the child was referred to a pediatric cardiologist at UMMC for further assessment and treatment.
The School of Nursing and the school district, with the support of the Sisters of Mercy and the Mississippi Department of Education, operate clinics at the Ripley Blackwell Head Start Center in Mayersville, South Delta Elementary School in Rolling Fork, South Delta Middle School in Anguilla and South Delta High School in Rolling Fork. The Mississippi Association of Partners in Education (MAPE) recognized their work in February as a top school-community partnership that has produced outstanding results, awarding it a 2019 Governor’s Award.
“The clinic is very important down here in the Delta because a lot of the children don’t have access to medical care,” Brock, a Rolling Fork native, explained.
The staff at the schools’ clinics perform well-child check-ups, administer hearing and vision screenings, test for pre-diabetes and other conditions and keep a nebulizer on hand for asthmatic students. Faculty and staff at all three schools also receive yearly screenings.
The clinics also serve as a unique training opportunity for students at UMMC, including those from the medical, nursing and dental schools, to practice in a rural setting.
Both Sarah McGraw, family nurse practitioner at the elementary school and Gwen Dew, the nurse at the middle school clinic, said they see a large number of students with asthma exacerbated by the chemical and dust in the air from nearby farmland. The clinics follow the child’s asthma action plan, administering medicine and offering breathing treatments if needed.
In addition, the UMMC Department of Dermatology sends a doctor or nurse practitioner every month to the clinics to treat skin conditions like eczema and scabies.
While there is a dire need for more asthma and allergy education and services for these students, the clinic makes a real difference in this area and others, said Dr. Lisa Haynie, professor of nursing and director of Mercy Delta Express.
The middle and high school clinics also screen students for depression and other psychological issues. John Farr, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, first drives to the Delta to meet all students referred to him in person and then uses telehealth for treatment.
“We have caught some real (psychological) issues,” Dew, who is also a nurse at the Mercy Delta Express clinic, said, including instances of sexual and physical abuse.
Dew, who lives in Anguilla, said the community is thankful to know the staff at the clinics have connections and resources in Jackson.
South Delta Elementary School Principal Valerie Smith said the clinic is not only convenient for parents and caregivers with limited or no access to transportation – and for the many parents who work at the Nissan plant – but critical to the school’s funding and its students’ academic performance.
The district’s absentee rate has decreased dramatically since the implementation of the clinics – from 13.8 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to 6.9 percent in the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent data available.
Tenth grader Rodarius Robinson said he comes into the clinic often for allergies and to get physicals for football, in addition to when he’s sick.
“They’re real quick to get you back to class,” he said.
Because a school’s funding is based on the number of students in the classroom on certain days of the school year, absences for long trips and waits in a doctor’s office can take a financial toll.
“It has really protected (students’) instructional time and our children have been performing much better academically,” said Smith.
Even the younger students appreciate the clinic. First grader Leilani Gray, who came into the clinic at the elementary school the Monday after spring break for a checkup, said she likes McGraw and the others in the clinic “because they help kids.”
And that they do – often going above and beyond what a normal medical clinic would do. At the high school, Tammy Fordham, health educator, and Akia Davis, research and outreach specialist, organized an assembly for high schoolers and some middle schoolers about dating violence. They’ve also brought in speakers to talk about birth control and tobacco, among other topics.
At the elementary school, the clinic is involved in Project Backpack, a partnership with the Mississippi Food Network that fills up kids’ backpacks with food for weekends and holidays when they won’t be able to count on meals served in the school cafeteria.
All of the clinics have washers and dryers for younger students who have accidents or, in some cases, for students of all ages who don’t have access to them at home. The clinics’ staff keeps detergent on hand and washes uniforms, and in the middle school clinic a screened-off area is dedicated to educating children about personal hygiene and contains items like deodorant, toothpaste and soap.
For McGraw, who drives nearly two hours from Flowood four days a week to man the clinic with patient services coordinator Treaise Williams, what she does at the clinic is incredibly rewarding.
“I love it,” she said. “It never really feels like work.”
Leslie Griffin, president of MAPE, the organization that awarded the district and the School of Nursing the award, said successful partnerships like this one “are truly making a difference” for students.
“When we talk about improving school performance in Mississippi, partnerships should always be an important part of the conversation – and the Governor’s Awards program proves this point,” Griffin said. “Year after year, we learn about the many creative ways that schools and communities across Mississippi are working together to improve student outcomes. Their success stories are truly making a difference.”