Caring Beyond the Classroom

Fall 2008

Caring Beyond the Classroom

By Natalie Davis Miller

Marianna Teller holds her son Andrew’s hand, while he sits on the lap of nursing alumna Natalie Hunckler ’07. Hunckler is now a registered nurse working in oncology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Marianna and Joseph Teller are the parents of two little boys: three-year-old Andrew and 16-month-old Michael. Andrew was born with cerebral palsy, and is unable to do anything independently. Speaking is limited to simple words such as “no.” He is unable to walk or sit, and he has to be fed through a gastrostomy tube (G-tube). In spite of this, he is the picture of vibrancy and hope.

Little brother Michael was born fully functioning, but like other children his age, needs constant supervision and attention. Sometimes the Tellers, and parents who provide constant care for children with special needs, just need a little break. For the Tellers, help came in the form of Natalie Hunckler ’07, a nursing student who began working with the family through the Time Out Pediatric Respite Care program. The program complements Saint Mary’s nationally accredited nursing major, providing all nursing students with experience outside the classroom as part of their clinical experience. Hunckler worked with the family from the summer of 2005 through the spring of 2007, and remains in touch with them today. “They became my family away from home,” says Hunckler. “To me, Andrew was like a little brother. Just watching him grow—just the progress that he has made is unreal. He always recognizes me.”

It was a powerful experience according to Hunckler, one that gave her an opportunity to see firsthand the strides people can make. Hunckler credits experiences like her work with Andrew, experiences that are part of the nursing program, with making her a better nurse. “I am very proud to be a nursing graduate from Saint Mary’s. I think that I got a great education there.” Hunckler is now a registered nurse working in oncology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.


“I am very proud to be a nursing graduate from Saint Mary’s. I think that I got a great education there.”

The Time Out Pediatric Respite Care program is part of the N326 Child Health Nursing course. The program was an off-shoot of a joint venture between Saint Mary’s College and Sacred Heart Parish in Notre Dame, Ind. In 1995 the partnership provided geriatric respite care but moved to a pediatric respite care pilot program in 1998, after Sacred Heart nurses received requests from the community for the service. In 2001, the program was taken over fully by Saint Mary’s College. Now in its tenth year, the program has assisted over 80 families, with students logging in over 4000 hours of service. Additionally, through a grant, students can also work for the program either after completing the required service learning hours or during the summer, increasing total number of hours provided to 8,882.

How it Works

Students are matched with families with children who have disabilities ranging from subtle to severe. Nursing students provide 16 hours of care, with visits being a minimum of two hours. The average visit is 3–4 hours, and if the student is like Hunckler, they far exceed their time requirement. “I tried to do as many hours as I could because I loved being there,” says Hunckler. In addition to the pediatric respite care focus sheet, students keep a respite journal that includes their experiences from their visits, and a journey paper that reflects on the meaning and benefit of their entire experience.

Why it Works

When Hunckler began working with Andrew, it allowed his mother, Marianna, to go out by herself. She took the opportunity to go to the grocery store. “It felt amazing to be gone alone, without Andrew on my body,” she explains of having to carry Andrew with her everywhere when he was 15 months old. “When I came home and saw that he was happy I felt hope, that it was going to be possible to have quality of life slowly and surely. Up to that point I had doubted that anyone would, or wanted to take care of him because he was an extremely difficult and unhappy child. At that point it was just a lot of work, and just no emotional reward at all.”

Hunckler remembers the early days as well, when Andrew was always crying. Hunckler came to work with the Tellers after Andrew had surgery to address his chronic vomiting. Hunckler says Teller seemed very cautious initially. “Once she felt comfortable she left for about two hours, then came back and did things in the house.”

Saint Mary’s nursing students are well equipped to care for special needs children. They are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic nursing skills, family theory, and childhood development. Working with and learning from the family, students, according to guidelines, are also able to administer medicine as well as conduct tube feedings. Their expertise greatly adds to the comfort level of families.

Life Lessons

Hunckler knew from the age of five that she wanted to be a nurse. She recounts a story of her grandfather making nursing caps out of construction paper for her and her sister as they took care of him when he had cancer. “I knew I wanted to take care of him, and I handled death differently,” she says. Originally enrolled at another college, Hunckler transferred to Saint Mary’s. “It was the best decision I ever made in my life, without a doubt,” says Hunckler. “It was the greatest experience of my life. And nursing school was hard.”

During her time with the Tellers, she became very involved with the family. When they moved from an apartment to a house, Hunckler was there to assist with Andrew. When Andrew received therapy, Hunckler was often there, learning from the occupational therapist as well. “It was interesting to see what Andrew could do when you challenged him,” says Hunckler. “The milestones he has reached and surpassed since I’ve been working with him are just amazing. Every time I go back to see him, he’s made more improvement. He’s such an amazing child.”

Hunckler’s participation in the Teller family went beyond taking care of Andrew, exemplifying the “family-centered care” aspect of the program. “While you’re sitting taking care of the child with the condition, you are also like a big sister to the sibling who doesn’t get as much attention,” explains Hunckler.

Hunckler’s observations of the family include not just the children, but also the parents as well. “Marianna is so different than when I met her; she’s so much more calm. I think because Andrew is so much happier, she’s able to be happy.”

Teller, who has a hard time talking about how strongly she feels about the program without crying, echoes Hunckler’s sentiments. She notices the difference in her son, how he seems to feel good about having other people around him, and that they are happy to see him. All of this has a direct impact on them as parents. “The fact that Mommy and Daddy were getting a break made us better parents and happier people, and we had more to give.”

Hunckler plans to attain a master’s degree in nursing, and eventually become a nurse practitioner. Her goal is to continue working with children, a goal that was undoubtedly influenced by her participation in the Time Out program. “It’s been one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had, working with the Tellers.”