School nurses manage more than medicine for students
National School Nurse Day was May 11 and according to Charles County Public Schools, no day is the same for nurses.
“You see different things every day,” Jennifer Ledford, who has been the school nurse at Indian Head Elementary School for six years, said in the release. “It’s always an adventure. There is always something going on. You will never be bored as a school nurse.”
The school health program is a collaborative effort between Charles County Public Schools and the Charles County Department of Health which allows for nurses in each school, the release states. Nurses dole out maintenance medications for ADHD, allergies and other issues. Schools are small societies, any given one will have its share of asthmatics, diabetics, students with seizure disorders and those who have anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that is life-threatening. Add to that the occasional headache, injuries, stomachaches, pink eye and colds and a nurse’s office is rarely quiet.
D.W. Stephenson, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has worked in trauma and intensive care units of hospitals in California, Texas and for the last 10 years at Doctors Community Hospital in Lantham. Now at Maurice J. McDonough High School, this is Stephenson’s first year as a school nurse. “I’m not an adrenaline junkie,” he said about leaving the intense environment of a hospital setting. “I like having the ability to be able to take my military and nursing training and be able to take on whatever comes through that door.” There are “frequent flyers” — nurse speak for patients who always seem to turn up at the nurse’s office — but this year McDonough’s administration has laid out firm rules about how a student can see Stephenson, all must have a pass from a teacher. There’s no “hanging out” in the office to avoid class, the release states.
Some days are more fast-paced than others. “I sent seven kids home today,” Stephenson said recently. “One had a 101-degree fever, three were vomiting, three with pink eye.” School nurses are critical in stopping or at least slowing the spread of illness in a school, said Sandra Geier, the nurse at General Smallwood Middle School, who tended to more than 830 students in April. If one child in a classroom has the flu, chances are they will be spreading to their peers. “I let the teachers and building service workers know — you may want to do some extra cleaning, wipe door handles.” Geier, a first-year school nurse in Maryland, — she previously worked in upstate New York — said if she sees trends or if a lot of people in the school are coming down with something, she’ll let her supervisors at the health department know. “It feels like we’re here by ourselves, but [supervisors] are only a phone call, text or email away,” she said.
The school nurse program was piloted during the 1996-97 school year at Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer Elementary School. The following year, 26 nurses covered 31 school sites. By 2000, all schools and centers in CCPS had a school nurse, said Karen Grace, Charles County School Health Program manager, in the release.
Depending on the age group, school nurses will deal with different issues. In elementary school Ledford said “accidents” aren’t infrequent. Churches and parents are known to donate new underwear to the health room and extra pants are stored in a stack of drawers in the nurse’s office; sometimes head lice will go around, but this year, “We’ve been pretty lucky,” Ledford said, knocking on her wooden desk. In middle school puberty hits and Geier often talks with students, especially girls, about how their bodies are changing and what they can expect. By high school, students are usually responsible enough to drop by for their required medications and head back out to class, Stephenson said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t emergencies. Stephenson has been called to classrooms to attend to a sick person. Earlier this year, he had to call 911 for a student who was having a seizure. Geier stays afterschool for a while to make sure kids who are learning to play sports or are involved in another activity have access to their medication if need be. Some of her six diabetics can require 13 glucose tests a day; giving medicine to a kid on the verge of an asthma attack means they can go back to the field instead of having to call mom or paramedics.
Geier said that she is sometimes the first contact for a family with a medical concern. “I have an open door policy. Parents can come and talk to me,” she said. Geier follows the teachings of legendary nurses Dorothea Dix, Florence Nightingale and Lillian Wald. With a background in social work, Geier believes that nurses should attend not only to a person’s physical wellbeing, but their emotional health, as well. “It’s all interconnected,” she said. “If you treat the whole person holistically, you’ll have a better outcome.”
Being a school nurse is never boring. “I like working with the kids, they always have little stories,” Ledford said in the release. “There’s never a dull moment here.” Like every job, it has it’s up and downs. “This job can be very frustrating,” Stephenson said of nursing. “And it can be very fulfilling.” But students appreciate school nurses. “If something happens at school, she’s always there to help” said Sean Heckman, an eighth grader at Smallwood, about Geier.
Faith Chambers, left, a senior at Maurice J. McDonough High School, gets a blister on her hand inspected by school nurse D.W. Stephenson.
General Smallwood Middle School school nurse Sandra Geier, left, cleans a scar left behind after eighth grader Sean Heckman had stitches removed from his leg.