HENDERSON, Nev. -- Except for the presidential candidate, newspaper reporters, TV crew and Secret Service agents tracking her every step, it was just another day on the job Monday for Michelle Estrada at St. Rose Dominican Hospital.
The nurse's 12-hour shift at the hospital's Siena campus started as usual at 7 a.m. but at mid-afternoon Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived. The New York senator spent more than two hours shadowing Estrada in the fourth-floor medical/surgical ward before heading to Estrada's home for dinner with her and her three children.
"I'm following Michelle around today to see what a nurse does," Clinton explained to the patient in Room 471. Kristine Arone, 65, was admitted to the hospital with blood clots in her lungs after a long car ride with her husband, Mike, to Las Vegas from Buffalo, Minn.
"It's something my husband and I think about a lot because we travel so much," Clinton told her, confiding that she had once suffered a deep vein thrombosis.
Then it was off to watch Estrada with other patients — drawing blood, flushing IV lines, checking blood sugar and trying to decipher a doctor's handwriting. Clinton wore a peach lab coat and an interested smile.
"It's a good opportunity to share with her how patients fare," Estrada, 50, said, professing little nervousness and drilling Clinton in the details of drug protocols as though she were about to take her boards. "We have a million people in our nation who work on health care, but we're behind the times" in ensuring insurance coverage and quality care.
More than casual conversation was at stake in the encounter between the Democratic presidential contender who leads in national polls and the no-nonsense nurse who has 26 years on the job. Clinton's participation in the "Walk a Day in My Shoes" program, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, was also part of an effort to keep rival John Edwards from landing a big labor endorsement.
Edwards was the first of five Democratic contenders to put in a day with an SEIU member, in his case working alongside a nursing assistant at a nursing home in Westchester County, N.Y. — which just happens to be where Clinton's New York home is located. The former North Carolina senator has been the contender most likely to walk a picket line, and this spring he became the first to detail a health care plan.
SEIU activists meet next month to consider endorsing a candidate, though that decision might well come later. With the backing of the 1.9-million-member union would come organizational muscle in such key states as Iowa and Nevada, which hold the opening caucuses in January.
"Edwards has put in an enormous amount of time for the SEIU and other labor organizations across the country — more so than all the rest of the candidates combined," former Michigan congressman David Bonior, Edwards' campaign manager, said in an interview. He dismissed Clinton's incremental proposals on health care as inadequate. "She talks about health care but doesn't have a plan," he said.
Clinton says her experience as the architect of her husband's failed health care plan a dozen years ago taught her valuable lessons about what's feasible. Although SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger and others have expressed disappointment in the limits of Clinton's health care proposals, the senator has strong ties to the union's leadership in New York.
And she did agree to Monday's workday — a significant commitment of time and decided change of pace for top presidential contenders, for whom nearly every minute on the road typically is scripted.
"We wanted to challenge the candidates to spend real time working in our members' shoes so it wasn't just a photo op or just speaking to a rally," Burger said.
Still, Clinton's day at the hospital was at least equal parts regular workday and media extravaganza. USA TODAY, NBC's Today show and the Las Vegas Sun were allowed to chronicle Clinton and Estrada on the hospital ward. Nurses typically tend to five or six patients during a shift, but that number was trimmed to four to accommodate Estrada's entourage.
Clinton paused in the hallway to greet Sara Dort, 11, who was standing next to her father, a hospital administrator. "I wanted to be the first girl president but you beat me to it," Sara said.
"Well, not yet," Clinton replied with a smile. "But that's going to make it easier for you."
At the end of the shift, Clinton and Estrada were to climb into Clinton's motorcade to meet Estrada's children — 18-year-old Amy, 16-year-old Jacob and 11-year-old Aaron. Estrada, who is divorced and works three 12-hour shifts a week, says finding energy for her children on those days can be a challenge.
On the dinner menu: turkey tetrazzini.
Estrada said she's committed to attending Nevada's Democratic caucuses Jan. 19, but Clinton can't count on her support, at least not yet. "I am looking at what they all bring to the table," the nurse said, "and I need to vote my conscience."