Medical clinic helps students' health

West Warwick, R.I. – Walk down the main hall of Deering Middle school in West Warwick, take a right, and you'll find the health hut.

Sherrie Berger, the health assistant, stands in the waiting room with a sick student. The nurse practitioner here has already diagnosed him with strep throat. Now he needs to pick up his medication and get better.

And he won't be missing school for long.

The health hut is a cute name for a very practical idea - a health clinic inside the school. The nurse practitioner and her assistant are employees of Thundermist Health Center, which runs another health clinic in West Warwick on Main Street.

There's nothing fancy about the Health Hut - it's just two small rooms- one for exams, and one for overflow.

Karen Dodd is the school nurse at Deering Middle school. She was working here before the health hut opened.

"I was literally in the office by myself," Dodd says. "If I had a sick child, I'd have no one else to say Yes, that student has strep throat or that student has an ear infection.'"

Like all school nurses, Dodd isn't authorized to run lab tests. But when the health hut moved in 2003, she started sending students next door, where the nurse practitioner can test them for strep throat or an ear ache within minutes.

"So the kid's thinking, Ok I'm going to go home!' It's like Sorry, you need to go back to class,'" Dodd says. "So, it really works so nice."

But the clinic is doing a lot more than that. It's also helping students like Jesse Wayne Greg, a freshman at the high school next door, who had a lot of health problems last year, which led to a ton of visits to the Health Hut. Jesse says he was visiting the clinic almost every week. He says he became so comfortable with Sherrie Berger, the health assistant, that he started coming for other reasons, too.

"Last year, I had a big presentation I had to give and I was really stressed and I didn't know what to do," Jesse says. "I came down here, and I talked to Sherrie and she told me that I just needed to relax. I was going to do fine and it helped."

Mary Andaloro, the nurse-practitioner at the Health Hut, says it can be a lot more comfortable for kids to get medical care without always having their parents present.

"You're not going to have a 16-or-17-year-old patient be telling you what's really going on in their life with their mother or father standing right outside, or in the visit with you," Andalardo says. "You're not going to know, they're going to lie. Whereas with me, I know exactly what's going on."

Andaloro gives immunizations, physicals, or prescriptions to any child who needs medical care, regardless of whether they can pay. That's important in a town like West Warwick, where 18 percent of the children live below the poverty line.

Maria Montenaro, is president and CEO of Thundermist, which runs the Health Hut. She says it was set up to serve the town's large low income community - at the request of the West Warwick School Department.

"They really felt that a school based delivery of health services would really improve not only the compliance of those medical provisions but the overall health status of their students," Montenaro says.

And it seems to be working, according to Montenaro, who says immunization rates have improved by about 80 percent. Data from Thundermist found that students with access to school-based clinics see a doctor three times a year. Without it, Montenaro says, they have a check up less than once a year.

Despite the evidence that they work, school-based clinics are disappearing in Rhode Island. At one point, the Ocean State had eight. Now there are just two - the one in West Warwick, and another and another at the Met School in Providence.

Most of the health centers shut down after state funding was cut. Montanero says Thundermist had to shift funds from other parts of its business to keep the Health Hut open.

It's unlikely West Warwick will give up on the Health Hut anytime soon. Students like Freshman Jesse Wayne Greg - who got sick so often last year - depend on it. And Jesse has a younger brother and sister - who will be counting on it as well.