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Loss of campus clinic at Oklahoma City school has repercussions beyond student health

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed budget cuts that shuttered a health clinic serving pregnant teens and young mothers at Emerson Alternative High School in northwest Oklahoma City. Advocates say the result is more absences, anxiety about health concerns and a higher number of pregnancies.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: June 13, 2011
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Ana Fuller teaches young moms how to be good moms.

The family advocate at Emerson Alternative High School Early Head Start helps girls navigate motherhood and crawl out of poverty. She's worked at Emerson for three years — the first when the on-campus health clinic was open, then second two when it wasn't.


Her first year, two girls had more than one child. This year, 11 did. And those are only the girls in her day care program, not the entire school.

Three of Fuller's students with multiple children graduated this year, she said. One is doing well, one is pregnant again and the third is a prostitute.

“It's not good odds,” she said.

Two years ago, students could walk out the back doors of their school and into the front doors of a clinic designed especially for pregnant and parenting teens.

Now the empty trailer is rotting and deserted, thevictim of what advocates say is a tough economy and social indifference.

The clinic was open for nearly 30 years, and the closing was like a falling line of dominoes. The Legislature cut about $141,000 in funding for the Emerson clinic in northwest Oklahoma City and a similar project in Tulsa.

OU Medical Center pulled its staff. The state Health Department didn't have any spare cash.

Since then, life has changed for the girls at Emerson, a longtime school for pregnant students. They skip school to go to the doctor while they're pregnant, and then they skip doctor appointments to go to school after the birth.

They fall farther behind. Students and teachers are on edge because no one — not even a school nurse — is around to offer medical advice.

Fuller reaches over to a graduation party invitation pinned onto her bulletin board. She taps her finger on the girl's smiling face.

“Ones like her,” she said. “That's what keeps me pushing and praying and loving these girls.”

Emotionally involved

The Emerson clinic opened in 1983, and Joy Quinn ran it for five years.

“I really did love it,” the nurse practitioner said. “Eventually, it gets to you emotionally. I was coming out bursting into tears practically every time I had to examine somebody.”

The mother of four girls, she found treating young expectant mothers especially challenging. They were so young — one was 12 — and many were survivors of sexual abuse, neglect or violence.

But Quinn and the other staff members developed strong bonds with the girls while she worked there from 1987 to 1992. She said she was devastated when she heard the clinic had closed.

“It wasn't just prenatal care,” she said.

“Emotionally, it made a big difference.”

The Legislature cut the state Health Department budget by $1.9 million in May 2009 because of dropping revenue. The department, in turn, cut eight programs, including the Emerson clinic.

The clinic wasn't ideal, but at least it was something, said Dr. Lauranne Harris, an obstetrician who has volunteered at Emerson for years.

“When we had a clinic on campus,” she said, “it was a real sense of community. ... It was more than blood pressure and tummy measure.”

The school doesn't have a nurse anymore. Even a rotating nurse doesn't stop by.

Teachers call or email Harris, asking about headaches, contractions, nosebleeds, nausea, fainting.

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AT A GLANCE

By THE

NUMBERS

$141,463

Annual price of running health clinics at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City and the Margaret Hudson Program in Tulsa and Broken Arrow.

$25,152

Average cost of hospital delivery of a baby in Oklahoma County.

$2,639

Annual cost per child on SoonerCare.

$190 million

Annual cost to Oklahoma taxpayers for teen pregnancy because of increased health care, welfare and other services.

$11 billion

Annual cost to U.S. taxpayers.

7,500

Number of births to Oklahoma teens in 2008.

21 percent

Percentage of those births were to teens who were already mothers.

50 percent

Percentage of teen mothers earn a diploma by age 22, compared with nearly 90 percent of women who have not given birth during adolescence.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oklahoma Health Care Authority, Oklahoma Hospital Association, Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy

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