Mary Towne-Merritt, RD, CSP
The important role nutrition plays in a child’s health and wellbeing is taken seriously at Children's Hospital. Clinical dietitians partner with the Hospital’s board certified pediatric subspecialists to ensure growing children receive adequate nutrition along with their medical treatment.
Clinical Nutrition Manager Mary Towne-Merritt sits at the helm of the Hospital’s team of food and nutrition experts. With more than 30 years of dietetic experience, Towne-Merritt directs the activities of the dietitians and is responsible for the nutritional care and education the department provides. She is also a liaison to the dietetic department to assure optimum delivery of that nutritional care.
“In the pediatric world we are doing medical nutrition therapy,” said Towne-Merritt. “Not only do we deal nutritionally with medical conditions that require a therapeutic nutritional intervention, but we also evaluate how well a child is growing to ensure we sustain the appropriate growth that is acceptable for that particular child.”
In addition to leading the department, Towne-Merritt sees patients in inpatient and outpatient settings. One of her areas of expertise is the ketogenic diet for seizure management. She works closely with neurologists for children who would potentially benefit from the specialized nutrition plan.
“It’s a diet that mimics starvation or the state of ketosis, in which the body is burning fat as its primary source of energy,” said Towne-Merritt. “For individuals who have certain types of seizures, it can actually reduce or stop them.”
Dr. Steven Ehrreich, Children’s Neurology Medical Director, said that while it’s not an easy diet, it can free patients from the need to take medications that may leave them feeling lethargic or do not work at all.
“It takes extra training to understand the diet, how to use it and how to work with families because it’s very labor intensive,” said Dr. Ehrreich. “Not everything works for everybody, not all the kids are going to eat certain options and you have to get creative.
“Mary is phenomenal,” Dr. Erreich continued. “The patients can reach her directly when they need to ask questions. She helps with admission orders and makes our life easier when they are coming in for the ketogenic diet.”
Towne-Merritt not only fields calls from her patients, but other medical facilities also contact her frequently to ask questions on how to care for their pediatric patients.
“It’s more complex in pediatrics because of the growth factor,” said Towne-Merritt. “If you impede growth, you could impede the growth of the brain and their potential for learning later. Adults are grown so that element doesn’t come into play.”
Towne-Merritt’s passion for pediatric dietetics is evident to her staff. Often she is the first one in the door and the last one to leave. She makes them feel like family.
“She’s very much a team player,” said Clinical Dietitian Linda Erickson, who has known Towne-Merritt for more than 20 years. “She has her own job to do but she’s always helping us out when we’re busy. She really cares and wants to make sure every single dietitian’s day is going to go well.”
Being a clinical dietitian requires daily learning and a strong commitment to patient families, which Towne-Merritt exemplifies. She also realizes it takes a team to do the job well.
“It’s a very challenging area,” said Towne-Merritt. “You depend on all aspects of care from physicians, pharmacists, nurses, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and social workers – it takes a village to take care of children. I get great joy out of helping families because they love their children so very much.”
Towne-Merritt joined Children’s Hospital in 1994 after working in clinical nutrition and food service at a long-term care facility for 16 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in home economics with a dietetics option from California State University – Fresno. She completed a dietetic internship at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. She resides in Fresno with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, cooking and exercise.