Celebrating swamp nurses in the New Yorker

More examples of the fine work being done by the Nurse Family Partnership.

Published February 2, 2006 2:02PM (EST)

A few weeks ago Broadsheet highlighted an emerging social program called the Nurse-Family Partnership, which assists low-income, first-time mothers by pairing them with mentor nurses through the first two years of their children's lives. So imagine our delight when we picked up this week's New Yorker and saw a feature on the same subject!

Written by the excellent Katherine Boo, the New Yorker piece follows nurse Luwana Marts as she makes her rounds through the Louisiana swamps and focuses particularly on her work with two girls, Alexis and Maggie, both teenage mothers. Marts, who was once a young mother herself, tells Boo, "I know there were government programs ... designed to help girls in my situation, but back then, especially if you were black, you didn't hear about them." Boo reports that it took Marts 14 years, while raising her sons and working as a nurses aide, to finally earn her bachelor's degree in nursing. So it's no surprise that Marts' explanation as to why she's wiling to work at a fraction of the salary that she might earn in a private hospital is frank: "Quite a few of us nurses are working, you could say, in the context of our own memories."

Marts works in one of the most challenging areas of the country. "Lousiana literacy rates are among the nation's lowest," writes Boo, and "infant mortality and child poverty rates -- thirty percent of all children are poor -- are among the very highest." Those troubles are magnified in the lives of Alexis and Maggie, who struggle with unemployment, abusive boyfriends, dysfunctional families, decimated homes and disease.

In the end, Boo's story is both inspiring and alarming -- but I urge you all to read it. Unfortunately, the full text is not available online -- so until you can get to your local newsstand, check out this Q&A with Boo, in which she discusses why she chose to focus on Louisiana and why she thinks the program works.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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