Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Roving all over ‘hell’s half acre’

Stacey Hyde-Mecham drives 3,300 miles a month to treat Idaho children


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

Children’s speech-language pathologist Stacey Hyde-Mecham, left, succeeds in making 20-month-old Marcus Schmidt, right, follow along in sign language with the help of Marcus’ mother, Adriana, and brothers 7-year-old Clay and 3-year-old Evan. Express photos by Trevon Milliard

Second in a series about rural health care in south-central Idaho.

The moonless night sky is darker than usual, almost black like the empty roads and windows of Carey—still asleep. One home has already awakened. Light floods Stacey Hyde-Mecham's kitchen window. Mecham, a short, smiling woman, grabs her keys and heads out the door, stepping into her traveling office—a 2007 Buick Rendezvous.

She turns the key, igniting the instrument cluster in front of her steering wheel. The odometer reads 202,000 miles. Mecham says she averages 3,300 miles a month trekking solo back and forth across the back roads of southern Idaho.

She takes a right and heads south on state Highway 93. Ironically, Mecham doesn't enjoy sitting behind the wheel for most of the day.

"It's a pain in my butt," she says. No pun intended.

She isn't a fan of desks either, but the stress of driving is exacerbated this time of the year. She's often on the road before the plows are, which worries her husband.

"I know he worries, but he's not one to tell me what to do," she says and laughs before adding, "I won't listen anyway."

She records every mile and every hour in a leather-bound book, asserting that she spends 66 hours a month with wheels rolling, compared to the 60 hours doing her job as a children's speech language pathologist for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state contracts with her to help children who are struggling to develop their speech skills. Many suffer from temporary hearing loss due to ear infections. Even though the hearing loss may have subsided, some children still rely on indiscernible "deaf shrieks"—as one parent calls them—for communicating.

She says this becomes increasingly problematic and frustrating for children as they get older because they need to express more needs than just "I'm hungry" or "I'm sleepy."

"It's not just 'I want a cracker,' but 'I want a goldfish cracker,'" Mecham says.

Mecham aids parents in bringing their children back on track, visiting their homes once a week for about an hour each. She says children are more likely to respond in a familiar environment. That's a vital part of the state's Infant Toddler Program, which treats children up to their third birthdays. Home treatment is also necessary for the "coaching model" that the department and Mecham rely on. She can't make a difference in just an hour a week. She merely notes the child's progress and gives homework to the parents for reaching the next step.

Her philosophy is, "I'm not the speech therapist, you are."

She's been doing this for five years and used to just cover Blaine County, but things "snowballed" once she agreed to drive a little farther.

"The word gets out that there's a speech therapist who will travel all across hell's half acre," she says, adding that she has about 30 children on her caseload at the moment.

She'll cover 267 miles and visit eight children by sundown, no pit stops. She schedules her appointments as tightly as possible, eating as she drives.

It's a job Mecham says she'll do until she retires. Considering her dread of driving, the rationale behind her commitment is as obscure as the shadowed snowscape speeding by the window. But her motivation soon comes to light, same as the sun beginning to burn through the haze on the eastern horizon, turning the clouds a fiery orange.

First stop, Shoshone.

Mecham walks to the back door and is welcomed in. A 2-year-old girl with short, curly blond hair and sky-blue eyes runs into the room shouting something indistinguishable to untrained ears.

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"Stacey's home."

"You ready for some words, Jeena?" Mecham asks as she sits at the dining room table next to the kitchen.

The house is dark except for the kitchen light, and quiet. Sleepy-eyed children, hair wet from showers, come and go. The mother brushes the hair of another daughter sitting on her lap at the table.

Jeena climbs onto Mecham's lap and the two flip through flashcards with pictures of one-syllable objects. "Bee, knee, tea." Jeena repeats the words after Mecham, whose smile never fades.

Then comes a can of soda.

"Pop," Mecham says.

"Daddy," Jeena replies.

"I know daddy likes pop," Mecham replies.

Mecham then progresses to two-syllable words, but Jeena struggles to separate the syllables. Panda. Poodle. Potty.

"That's the thing you need to figure out how to use, right?" Mecham says.

"Yeah," Jeena shyly replies.

"At least you admit it."

Jeena has even more trouble with sentences. She says "don't" with ease, but when Mecham asks her to say, "Don't feed the monkey," not one word can be made out.

Mecham gives the mother a list of two-syllable words to try with Jeena as homework until next week and steps outside into the morning light, heading to her next appointment in Jerome.

"I dread their third birthdays," she says as she pulls out of the driveway.

That's the cutoff for her services and relationships sometimes lasting a couple of years.

"He still calls me 'my Stacey,'" she says of one past child. "You could not peel this kid off of me."

She receives annual Christmas cards from some families. One mother still calls her out of the blue. "Guess what word he used today?"

"It's hard to forget someone who came to your house every week for a year," she says.

A few appointments later, she ends up past Twin Falls at the home of 20-month-old Marcus Schmidt, who went through a lot but, despite all odds, may not need her anymore. Doctors had said Marcus' ear infections had caused permanent nerve damage, rendering him nearly deaf, permanently. His parents accepted it, buying him hearing aids and teaching him sign language, according to his mother, Adriana Schmidt.

"We definitely wouldn't have gotten this far without therapy, without Stacey," says the mother of four boys—the oldest is 7—who cares for the children while her husband works. She says that bringing Marcus into Twin Falls weekly for speech therapy would've been possible but very inconvenient.

Still, Schmidt said, she was worried about bringing a stranger into her home, showing someone the intimate troubles facing her family.

"We're kind of struggling. Plus, we're very simple people," she said of her Mennonite family. "Stacey never bats an eye. She always comes and sits on the floor with my boys. I don't have to worry about laundry on the couch or anything."

Mecham knows what it's like to be a struggling mother. Her two sons are now 20 and 21 and out of the house. However, when she was 22, she had just divorced her first husband and was raising them alone while working as a secretary at a Canadian company helping people continue their education.

"I'd type up their résumés," Mecham said. "I told one of the other secretaries, 'I'd love to go back to school.' She said, 'Why don't you.' I said, 'Single moms don't go back to school.'"

The other secretary then pulled out file after file. Single mother, single mother, single father, single mother.

Mecham went to the University of Alberta, earning a bachelor's degree in neuroscience and a master's in speech therapy while working two to three part-time jobs, knowing all along that she'd seek work in a rural area.

"I'm a country girl," she says.

She worked in Canada for a bit but eventually moved to Carey with her second husband, Rick, who owns a ranch here. Despite living in America, she's still proud to be Canadian, as made readily apparent on her car's license plate. "EH," it reads.

"I'm Canadian, eh," Mecham says and chuckles.

She heads home after the day's last appointment in Twin Falls. Halfway there, the sun disappears under the horizon, casting the clouds in the same fiery orange.

"This is what gives me joy," she says while talking about the day's children and driving down the dark highway. "I'm not giving that up."

By the time she reaches her garage, the sky is black again.

Mecham, who has a private practice in addition to working for Idaho's Infant Toddler Program, provides her services to all ages and can be reached at 721-0086 or hydemsc@hotmail.com.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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