You can’t help but notice after talking to Kerri Clark that she isn’t originally from around here – her charming southern accent gives her away.
“I’m from South Carolina, but my dad grew up in Ohio,” she said. “I decided to come here for nursing school and then I met my husband and basically never left.”
A seasoned pediatric intensive care nurse, Kerri has worked in Akron Children’s PICU for 12 years – starting her career as a staff nurse right out of college. Now a certified pediatric nurse practitioner on the night shift, she works 12, 13-hour shifts per month – just the way she likes it.
“With 2 school-aged children, I can get my kids on and off the bus, help them with homework and get them started on dinner before I have to report to work at 6 p.m.,” she said.
Today Kerri arrived early for mandatory Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) training.
ECMO is a machine that allows blood to bypass the heart and lungs and serves as an artificial means to circulate blood outside the body while putting oxygen into the bloodstream. It’s often used to treat children with serious heart and lung conditions.
“We don’t currently offer ECMO here, but plan to add it in the near future,” she said. “We are in the process of training staff so we won’t have to transfer our cardio pulmonary patients who need this service to Cleveland.”
After arriving in the PICU and doing verbal sign outs with the day shift nurse practitioner, Kerri begins her rounds starting with 16-year-old Tyler.
Diagnosed with a benign brain tumor years ago that left him neurologically altered and with endocrine issues, Tyler is currently suffering from osteomyelitis, a bone infection in his shoulder.
“Tyler came in with sepsis (an infection in his bloodstream) and is retaining a lot of fluid,” said Kerri. “His right foot is very swollen and is causing him lots of pain. We’ve been giving him some very strong antibiotics to resolve the sepsis. His case is complicated because he needs steroids to respond to his adrenal issues, which in turn causes puffiness and fluid retention.”
Tomorrow Tyler is scheduled for a physical therapy consult to evaluate his foot and a MRI to see if the bone infection in his shoulder is clearing up.
It was back in 2012 that Kerri decided she wanted to go back to school to get her master’s degree and become certified in pediatric acute care. She was aware of a scholarship named in memory of one of her former patients, McKenzie Rose Garretson, that offered financial assistance to PICU nurses interested in furthering their educations.
McKenzie was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor in 2008 at 11 months old and died only a few weeks later. Her family endowed the scholarship in her name to show their gratitude to the nurses who cared for her. Originally only offered to PICU nurses, the program recently expanded to offer scholarships to nurses in other departments at the hospital.
“Six PICU nurse practitioners have used the fund over the years, in combination with the hospital’s tuition assistance program, to go back to school,” said Kerri. “The scholarship allowed me to work 1 day a week at the hospital and still get paid full-time hours while covering tuition, books and fees.”
The reduction in Kerri’s work schedule made it possible for her to go back to school full time and complete the program in 2 years. After being a staff nurse for 10 years, Kerri was ready for more responsibility.
“I wanted to oversee the total care of the patient instead of being the one administering direct patient care,” she said. “I was ready for that level of autonomy. Plus, being a nurse practitioner offers more opportunities for teaching and education with the nurses and residents, which I enjoy.”
Unlike staff nurses, nurse practitioners have prescribing abilities and can order and interpret tests.
“We don’t make any major changes to the plan of care during the night unless the patient starts to decompensate,” she said. “My goal is to do physical exams and patient assessments, follow treatment plans, and make sure they are comfortable and meeting their nightly goals.”
Her next patient is 7-week-old Bentley, who came in 10 days ago with RSV and secondary bacterial pneumonia.
“Bentley was placed on a ventilator the day after he was admitted and was recently extubated,” she said. “He’s doing so much better and will probably be discharged in a few days.”
Kerri enjoys getting to know the families of her patients and accommodating their needs.
“Mostly parents want to know what our goals are for their child so we can get them well enough to be discharged,” she explained.
After completing her patient rounds, Kerri settles in to review and update charts, order tests and read lab results. She carries a Voalte phone so staff can reach her immediately if they have a clinical issue. Kerri and her fellow PICU nurse practitioners are also part of the medical response team who report to consults called on the floors.
Kerri says it’s the people she works with who make her job most enjoyable.
“We have a great team here at Children’s,” she says. “I enjoy the level of responsibility I am given, but I also know I have a great support system in place should I need it.”