M. Kathleen Murphy is an advocate of children’s wellness. A nurse practitioner and health services coordinator at Milwaukee Public Schools, Murphy nurtures programming and services to bolster the health of the district’s 93,516 children. Many of the school system’s youth live in poverty without health or dental insurance. Often, the only health care students receive comes through programs and screenings offered by schools. It’s Murphy’s charge to provide these children with more.
Murphy sought nursing years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1979 from Alverno College and building a career as a social worker. “I was a social worker during that time when a lot of service workers lost their jobs,” she said. “I took a human services job working in a long-term care facility in a hospice unit with nurses. I found out nurses use the same interventions as social workers, but they have a lot more job security and mobility.”
Murphy decided to make a career change and enrolled at Moraine Park Technical College, where she earned an associate degree in nursing in 1985. Her accomplishments since then – in work and life – recently earned her Moraine Park’s 2007-08 Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Prior to enrolling at Moraine Park, Murphy admitted she feared giving up her full-time job; wondered how she would make a living while pursuing a nursing degree; and questioned if throwing out a career in social work to take on nursing was a good decision. She said that Moraine Park not only reinforced the fact that she possessed the skill-set to become a competent nurse in just two years, but the College also offered her financial aid to alleviate tuition costs and expenses while working part-time. As a 28-year-old working woman returning to school, Murphy said, “Moraine Park made it easy. A lot of winning the game is having your head in the right place. Moraine Park made it so I did.”
After graduating with her associate degree in nursing, Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree from Alverno College in nursing. “I was very prepared for the advanced nursing assessments at Alverno thanks to my solid nursing background from Moraine Park,” she said.
She was soon promoted to continuing care coordinator at Family Health Plan in Milwaukee and in 1989 became manager of affiliated providers of Family Health Systems. As a nurse, she discovered that her previous career in social work married seamlessly with her new nursing career. Both occupations demand caring, something Murphy exhibits instinctively.
With her new nursing skill-set Murphy landed a spot as district coordinator for the Peace Corps’ Primary Health Care Project in Senegal, Africa, in 1990, where she implemented management strategies for 18 rural health posts. Additionally, she helped design programs to meet health needs focusing on education, prevention and training.
Upon her return home, she became a public health nurse for the Milwaukee Health Department and simultaneously enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where she earned a master’s degree to become a family nurse practitioner. While she studied, she spent several years working at a free health clinic for the homeless and uninsured in Milwaukee. “The free clinic allowed me to understand different cultures and become functionally bilingual in English and Spanish,” said Murphy. “If I wasn’t a nurse, I would not have that deeper cultural understanding.”
Armed with experience helping people of different races and cultures, Murphy finally landed in her current role at Milwaukee Public Schools. In 2004, she was named a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow, an honor bestowed on just 20 nurses annually across the country. The program honors nurses in senior executive roles who are aspiring to lead and shape the U.S. health care system. “It provides us with opportunities to develop new leadership behaviors, opportunities to test leadership skills and support to carry out those skills,” said Murphy. Moreover, selected nurses receive stipends for personal development. Murphy’s stipend dollars are going toward improving the School Nurse Program at Milwaukee Public Schools.
Although many perceive a school nurse as someone who bandages a playground boo-boo, Murphy said school nurses provide much more. There are children in school with potentially life-threatening diseases and allergies, or who may suffer traumatic injuries. The problem is that most school districts don’t employ enough nurses. For every 750 students there should be one school nurse, according to federal guidelines. With Murphy’s strong guidance, Milwaukee Public Schools, under the direction of Superintendent William Andrekopoulos, is working to gain more nurses to serve the district. In 2003, there was one nurse for every 8,500 students. Today there is a nurse for every 2,075 students and in 2008 Murphy said that gap will close further to one nurse for every 1,166 students. “I am focused on expanding the school nursing program and working to provide partnerships with colleges, universities and health systems locally to facilitate help in the schools,” said Murphy.
Facilitating cooperation among many constituents is a talent of Murphy’s, according to Andrekopoulos. “She’s a high-level professional who is dedicated, responsible, organized and who has endless energy and the ability to work with people,” he said. “She’s provided more nurses for our children and brings out the best in our community for our children.”
A community leader, Murphy also participates in Fight Asthma Milwaukee Allies, Madre Angela Dental Clinic, Prevent Blindness America, Prevent Blindness Wisconsin, Wisconsin Oral Health Coalition and Diverse and Resilient, among others.
Murphy, who resides in Milwaukee with her seven-year-old son Coleman, is “a wonderful representative of Moraine Park’s nursing program,” according to Anne Liners Brett, Moraine Park dean of nursing. “She exemplifies what nursing is all about.”
“Becoming a nurse makes you take stock of yourself and your relationships,” said Murphy. “Nursing is about relationships – with colleagues and patients. It is about having solid relationships as the basis for care.”