Liam Miller needed a nurse to be able to go to kindergarten without his mom having to stay with him at school. Now, he has one.
Nearly every day for six weeks, Krystal Miller had to stay with her youngest son, who’s tethered to a feeding tube as his only source of nutrition, because the Chicago Public Schools went through six nurses before finally finding him one who could properly care for him — and who’d stick around.
Liam had nurses who didn’t show up, or never had worked with feeding tubes (or with children) or couldn’t be with Liam all five days of school each week. Then, in October, CPS assigned 5-year-old Liam a veteran school nurse, one he adores and trusts.
That happened after a Chicago Sun-Times report about his mom accompanying him to Oriole Park Elementary, where she oversaw his feeding tube and pump.
His parents are elated. Because Liam has so much to learn.
He got a slow start as a baby until doctors figured out what was keeping him from gaining any weight, from sitting up on his own, from talking. As a 5-year-old starting school, he couldn’t begin to learn independence as long as his mother was in class.
- Liam Miller strikes his best Iron Man pose next to his mother Krystal Miller. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
- Krystal Miller looks on at her son, Liam, who is on a feeding tube and requires a school nurse to assist him. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
- Liam reaches for an ornament on the Miller family Christmas tree. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
- Liam Miller (L) and his father, Lorin Miller (R) in their Oriole Park home. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
- Liam Miller wrote his first name, a sign that the CPS appointed nurse is helping him improve at school. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
Now the sturdy little blonde boy is bursting to show off what he’s since learned at kindergarten on his own:
Counting most of the way from 1 to 20. Saying “hi” in Chinese. Practicing a chirpy rendition of “Mittens and Gloves” for the winter concert.
And then he spells out “L, i, a, m,” with his whispery voice, his chubby hands signing each letter as he says it. Head bent close to the kitchen table, Liam writes out his name, too.
There’s even more: Liam now is speaking in sentences that others can understand, instead of just saying random words. He’s talking about learning to use the potty, like the other kids at school. And he can walk up and down stairs on his own, instead of scooting or using the school elevator.
He’s accomplished so much since CPS did what what it was supposed to so his mom wouldn’t have to stay with him.
“He’s where he needs to be without mom. Because it was like, he would rely or look back at me like how do I answer this?” Krystal says. “At school, he’s not as shy because he’s gotten to know all of his peers and teachers, but he would still look at me and say, ‘You help’… kind of using me as a crutch. But now that I’m not there, he’s becoming more independent.
“Occasionally, yes, he will ask for help, but he will try before he asks for help.”
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Hundreds need care
Of CPS’ 361,000 students, officials say about 700 need regular nursing care at school. Federal law guarantees such care to kids with medical needs.
The Sun-Times has documented CPS’s problems keeping well-trained nurses for kids like Liam. RCM Health Care Services, the agency CPS officials have relied on since 2015 to augment their own 300-plus nurses, has high turnover, so some days, agency nurses don’t show up for their assignments. Or, parents have said, the assigned agency nurse lacks training on kids’ specific conditions.
Problems keeping those agency nurses in their temp jobs got worse at the start of this school year, when CPS rechecked the backgrounds of all adults working in schools, and some vendors’ backgrounds didn’t clear in time for the first day of school.
The worst of it hit as Liam was reporting for kindergarten.
Parents have transferred their kids to schools that have permanent nurses who work directly for CPS and are members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Some have filed complaints through the federal Department of Education. Liam’s dad emailed the newspaper weeks after school began, frustrated because his wife had submitted the child’s paperwork far in advance, last June, to avoid the nursing problems she and Liam ended up experiencing.
Diagnosed with shortgut, a condition that hinders the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, Liam can’t eat and is fed only through a tube. So someone who’s trained needs to keep watch every morning over the tube in his belly and the pump he wears on a backpack, and then unhook the tube before the lunchtime recess so Liam can join his friends outside to play, unencumbered.
His mother spent most days at school during those early weeks with Liam, while her husband did his share, too, at home with their two older children before driving to work the night shift.
Changes were in the works the day after the Sun-Times story was published. As for how CPS found a permanent replacement so fast, spokesman Michael Passman said: “When there is a need for support the district works as quickly as possible to ensure resources are in place.”
Schools officials also are nearly done hiring 20 new nurses of their own, with 19 offers accepted, though several dozen other nursing positions remain vacant, according to the most recently available count, taken Sept. 30.
To meet the rest of their demand to cover between 180 and 220 nursing agency assignments a day, CPS plans to spend up to $26 million on up to eight total agencies over the next two and a half years. Parents from the group Raise Your Hand object to that plan, saying kids need permanent solutions, not more temps.
In good hands
To the Millers’ satisfaction, their son’s new nurse showed immediately that she’s comfortable around children and knows her way around feeding tubes and pumps. With Liam, she is warm and kind, and he took to her within a surprisingly short three or four days.
Even better, the CPS veteran asks lots of questions and texts regular updates home. And there’s a backup plan in case she’s absent.
“I’d say this is a really good fit. I mean he likes her, I like her,” Krystal says. “She showed the key things that I was looking for, from day one, or at least was hoping for for day one but didn’t come until October.”
The nurse lets Liam’s parents lower their guard a little, just in time for his dad’s work schedule to change from nights to days. Krystal has had to spend zero days at school taking care of Liam since the new nurse started.
That leaves her and her husband with more energy to be the kind of parents they want to be for all three children. When 8-year-old Makayla got sick, Krystal could stay home with her. When 9-year-old Conner performed at school, Krystal could go watch, instead of being stuck in the kindergarten classroom.
And Liam gets to try things his older siblings can do, stuff he’s learning to talk about.
“I went on a field trip,” he explained, to the Chicago Children’s Museum.
To get there? “Go on a bus.”
The dinosaur exhibit was a hit: “I digged it!”
“What else, Mom?”