Praise for Family Medical Leave Act Mikulski introduces Marylander whose job was protected by it; DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION; CAMPAIGN 1996


CHICAGO -- A child's fear, a parent's worry and even a nation's concern about rising health care costs have been eased by the Family Medical Leave Act, according to a Columbia family who needed it last year.

Michael and Conswella Bachelor say their daughter Rasheda would have been hospitalized longer -- and her recovery compromised -- without the support provided by the law.

They told their story to the nation last night via videotape played during the Democratic National Convention.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski introduced them during a tribute to "the moms and dads who -- every day -- are America's unsung heroes."

The leave act, the Maryland senator said, is "a tool that helps parents do their jobs."

"We want to make sure that if a child is sick, mom or dad can stay home with them without fear of losing their job."

Signed by President Clinton soon after he was inaugurated, the law was presented as evidence of the Democrats' commitment to families. It provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a child's birth or adoption, or to care for a sick child, an elderly parent or a spouse with a terminal illness.

Mikulski called the law a "lifeline" to sustain family needs and work responsibilities.

The Bachelors' ordeal began when Rasheda suffered a seizure in the family car on the way to South Carolina. Though she appeared to recover, a far more serious attack came several weeks later. She fell into a monthlong coma.

Conswella, 29, was able to be with her daughter every day at the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and later at the Kennedy Krieger Institute -- without fear of losing her assistant manager's position at a McDonald's restaurant in Columbia.

Without the law, she said during an interview this week, "I could be replaced in an hour."

The pace of work in a fast-food restaurant and the availability of replacement workers would have left her no confidence that the job would be held, she said.

Before the law came into effect, McDonald's corporately owned restaurants granted leave on a case-by-case basis, according to Malesia Webb-Dunn, a McDonald's spokeswoman. Independently owned McDonald's franchises set their own policy, she said.

L Mrs. Bachelor says the law meant she could focus on Rasheda.

That concentration was important, according to Beth Wieczorek, nurse practitioner at Kennedy Krieger, who worked with Rasheda and her parents along with Dr. William H. Trescher, a pediatric neurologist there.

"The parent's presence makes the hospital a less threatening environment," she said. "A child comes in contact with many people in a hospital, but the parent is the constant, a reassuring presence who recognizes what their child's expressions mean. We can't."

"If the parent asks the child to do something," Trescher said, "we get a qualitatively better response than if we ask."

Rasheda was very ill with a thyroid disorder that affected her brain functions. Medications and other therapies needed to be continued by her mother -- and the hospital was able to teach the skills gradually without being forced to impart an "overwhelming" volume of instruction.

Wieczorek thinks Rasheda went home at least two months earlier than she might have because Mrs. Bachelor could continue the care she needed -- saving thousands of dollars.

The law does not cushion every blow. The family has been hit with big financial losses. Mr. Bachelor, 35, does electrical maintenance work at Bon Secours Hospital, but Mrs. Bachelor's income is crucial for the family.

"We're still struggling," she said.

The health of Rasheda, now 11, continues to improve. She missed six months of school, but she is now a full-time student at Owen Brown Middle School. She must relearn things, her mother says, but her attitude is confident.

She doesn't have much memory of her days in the hospital, her mother said -- "except for all the shots."

"And," Mrs. Bachelor says, "she remembers when I had to leave."

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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