I Spy Someone making a difference.
McKenzie puts the care in healthcareby Derrick Bracey
Coastal Carolina University’s Student Health Services (SHS) has seen more than 10,000 patients from August 2012 to April 2013. The top five reasons for these visits are ear-nose-and-throat, sinus, gynecology, dermatology and psychological counseling. Somewhere in that top five list should be nurse practitioner Tonya McKenzie, who has become a sort of folk hero to CCU’s tired, sick and weary.
Since coming to CCU in 2010, a large base of students have gravitated to McKenzie. This may be attributed to her obvious kindness. It may be her wealth of compassion. It may be her extra efforts to go above and beyond for her patients. Or it may be as simple as the McKenzie credo: "Sometimes they just need to know that someone cares," she says.
McKenzie’s job may start as a nurse practitioner, but over the last few years, she has become a counselor, an adviser, a therapist and a friend. CCU’s Student Health Services is where she encounters hundreds, if not thousands, of sick students, some away from home, who need to feel cared for as well as receive care. “People come in, and they’re not in the best mood because they’re sick,” she says. “We have to empathize.”
Soon after McKenzie came to work at CCU, she encountered a student who was having what she describes as “a bad day,” says McKenzie. “She was having self-esteem issues. She kept saying she hated the way she looked. She was very depressed.” McKenzie sat the young woman down, brushed her hair, talked to her until she was feeling a little better, and then walked her to Counseling Services. After that, she returned to see McKenzie again, to talk and vent and get advice.
Evelyn Sherman, the medical records manager at SHS, says, “She’s great with these kids. She works long hours and sees more patients than anyone. And they’ll wait to see her.” All of the nurses started referring to these patients as “Tonya’s children.”
Any given day, McKenzie will talk to between five and 10 of “her children” on the phone or in person. “Sometimes I’ll call to check on them, to ask if everything is okay,” McKenzie says.
“Tonya is on top of it, all the time. You have to push her to take a break,” Sherman says. “There were so many students making appointments to see her, it would fill up her whole day. So we switched her to an appointment and walk-in schedule.”
These students don’t come to see McKenzie just for health issues. They ask her questions about financial aid or work or finding a job. They come to her in search of advice on their plans after graduation or to find a church. “It’s hard sometimes; we don’t know how to respond,” McKenzie says. “We work as a team, call outside resources. A lot of people don’t know what goes on here. We treat mind, body and spirit.”
The “we” she refers to is the whole staff of SHS. McKenzie sets an infectious tone with her co-workers. “Tonya keeps it positive, keeps morale up,” Sherman says.
This team mentality drives McKenzie. She attributes her strong connection with these students to “grace, mercy and a bunch of great co-workers.” She says, “When I push myself to the limit, they pull me back in, make me take a break.”
This academic year on a SHS survey, 92 percent of users rated SHS’s overall services as excellent or good and wrote positive comments. 92 percent is a phenomenal number of satisfied customers in a health facility. “We have a compassionate staff, sometimes maybe too mothering,” says Caesar Ross, the director of SHS. “But when 50 percent of our students are from out of state, maybe that’s exactly what some of them need.”
Sometimes motherly love means tough love, especially when you’re dealing with health care. “These kids come in with serious issues,” McKenzie says. “We can’t judge. We talk to them and determine the situation, hear the whole story, whether it’s an abusive relationship or self-esteem issues or pregnancy, or they may have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). There’s usually a bigger issue happening that we need to figure out.”
Aside from these circumstances, McKenzie appears to relate to the students on a very human level. “It’s different out there now, but I know what it’s like to be a student, to work a job or three jobs, and not have health insurance,” McKenzie says. “Plus, I’ve learned a lot from these kids.”
When McKenzie is not making the drive from her home in Marion to work, she takes care of her mom and uncle. She is a member of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and what she calls “the greatest sorority in the world, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated” and works in its community outreach program, Z-HOPE. She also co-chairs a nurse and a health ministry.
McKenzie loves going to movies and listening to music, and over the years, she has found time to travel. She has visited parts of Texas and Florida and Mississippi. She has made her way to Las Vegas and Savannah, which she refers to as “The best city in the world.”
But nothing can keep McKenzie away from “her children” for too long, and she is always looking toward the future with optimism. “I would like to see Student Health Services grow,” McKenzie says. “I’d like to see a bigger building with more rooms, to see Counseling Services grow. And it would be nice to have a peer educator program like they have at Clemson and USC. And maybe more community outreach, on the health side.”
These new initiatives and programs would be nice, but to McKenzie it still comes down to the human connection, the friendships she has made. “I’ve had a couple of the kids call me after they graduate, just to tell me they were doing okay.” She pauses. “It’s always great to hear from them.”