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Roller Derby Player Doubles as Nurse for Sick, Disabled Kids

By Justin Breen | January 23, 2013 9:17am

ANDERSONVILLE — Twice a week, for eight hours a day, Mariah Osborne sees her favorite nurse.

It just so happens that nurse is Josie "Outlaw" Ferrel, a standout skater in the Windy City Rollers roller derby organization.

The 4-year-old Mariah suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that results in progressive decrease of muscle tone throughout the body and leaves patients with an average life expectancy of about two years. As a result, she can't talk and has a tracheostomy permanently in her throat.

Other than her handicap, Mariah is a normal child whose brain works at full capacity, Ferrel said.

"She's always grateful for just having fun," said Ferrel, 32, an Andersonville resident who plays for the Rollers' Manic Attackers team.

During her eight-hour shift at Mariah's family's Portage Park apartment, Ferrel plays music for her patient, and helps her perform strength exercises for her arms and hands.

She also constantly monitors Mariah, who can't swallow and has to have her mouth and nose "suctioned" every 15 to 30 minutes, even while sleeping.

"I'm very grateful for all the care Josie does for her," said Mariah's mother, Leslie. "I'd rather have her care for my daughter than any other nurse. I see how she cares for my daughter the way I see one of my family members care for her."

Ferrel, a registered nurse at Continuum Pediatric Nursing, works with patients in the Division of Specialized Care for Children program.

Since graduating from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in nursing in 2009, she's cared for children with muscular dystrophy, seizures, skin disorders, paralysis and leukemia.

Dunning resident Allyson Krajewski, 6, is another of Ferrel's patients who also has spinal muscular atrophy.

In addition to performing standard duties, Ferrel helps Allyson use a DynaVox computer, which has a camera that records her eye movements and allows her to play video games and do academic lessons. 

"Not all nurses are willing to learn those type of things," said Allyson's mother, Tina Krajewski. "Josie definitely takes the extra step of trying to do those fun things with Ally."

In October, Ferrel had several of her patients, including Mariah and Allyson, attend a Rollers game. Tina Krajewski dressed up Allyson like an "outlaw" — in a cowboy hat and boots — in honor of Ferrel, who named her derby character after "The Outlaw Josey Wales" Western film starring Clint Eastwood.

Ferrel said her compassionate demeanor at work initially carried over to the roller derby track.

"I spent a lot of my rookie season hitting somebody and looking back to make sure they were OK," she said. "You have to get used to being aggressive. It's not something that you are used to."

Ferrel, in her second year of competitive roller derby, said her patients aren't used to traveling anywhere.

But the player, whose season begins Saturday at the UIC Pavilion, is planning to invite several of them for a to-be-determined match later this season.

That includes patients she no longer cares for, including Jonathan Alcantara, 14, and his younger brother Leo, 8, who live in Aurora and both have muscular dystrophy.

The siblings, who both spend most of their time in wheelchairs, attended the October Rollers match and want to return again this year.

"They loved seeing her play," said their mother, Lupe Alcantara. "We usually have to stay home and keep up the same routine, so going over to the game was a really nice time."

That's the kind of reaction Ferrel continues to seek from her patients.

"I've grown very attached to them," Ferrel said. "To give them a quality of life that they deserve is a real challenge.

"I know my job is about the medical side of it and making sure they're healthy and happy, but on the personal side, I want them to have the same experiences that other kids get to have."