ANNAPOLIS – Each day, Sandra Bell deals with bandages and ice packs, inhalers and tissues. Her patients have allergies, headaches and homework.
As a school nurse at Abingdon Elementary in Harford County, Bell works to make things well — all better, as her kids might say.
She had over 12,000 visits last year, for reasons ranging from daily medications to unexpected emergencies. Although some elementary schoolers are afraid of what goes on in her office, by the time they leave the “tears are gone. They’re smiling.”
Bell says that making a difference — every day — is why “I like my job.”
There are 421 licensed nurses working in Maryland’s 1,276 schools, according to Debbie Somerville, the state Department of Education’s school health services specialist. And in recognition of these nurses and others across the nation, Wednesday was National School Nurse Day.
Ruthie Painter, a school community health nurse with Frederick County’s Comprehensive School Health Program, says school nursing has gotten more complex.
“It is not simple Band-aids and Tylenol,” Painter says.
Bell, a five-year veteran, says ailments such as diabetes and asthma are not uncommon. “This is my first year without a diabetic,” she notes.
In fact, what Somerville terms “fragile conditions” are no longer just treated in hospitals or home, but at schools. “Health care has changed tremendously over the years,” she says.
In Frederick, school nurses now supervise health technicians while they spend their own time dealing education and health assessments, Painter says. For instance, if a child is having problems paying attention or sitting still, a nurse might observe his home and past health history and help determine a prognosis.
If a child has diabetes or epilepsy a nurse will provide education for her and her family members. School nurses also create “care plans if an emergency should arise,” Painter says.
Her list goes on: School nurses also monitor immunization records, scoliosis (curvature of the spine), blood pressure, vision and hearing tests.
Even so, the job can be hard to let go.
One retired nurse spent this past week substituting at Baltimore County’s Sparrow Middle and High School, which share their health facilities. During her 30-year career as a registered nurse in the Baltimore County Schools, Patricia Werner received cards and luncheons and “a lot of thank yous from children.”
Werner likes not being isolated. Instead, she is “out there working directly with students and their families,” she says.
Jami Grossnickle, a certified nursing specialist at New Market Middle School in Frederick County, is among the beginners. She has spent her first year counting on her kids “to have something wrong with them — stomachaches, headaches, jammed fingers in gym.”
Like past generations, kids still rely on “getting sick” to save them from a test or assignment. Grossnickle has regular hypochondriacs who visit her two to three times a week.
So does Bell. “They start in kindergarten,” she says of the connivers.
But while some of the ailments — real and fake — are the same as 20 or even 40 years ago, other aspects of school nursing are right out of today’s headlines.
Werner says the biggest change she has observed in her career is with families. “They are not as tight knit … there is a break down in family structure,” she observes.
As a result, nurses spend as much time “counseling and listening as they do dealing with the physical,” she says. This is especially true in high schools, where nurses can “be on a more mature level — on reasoning and discussing problems.”
But even with added responsibilities, nurses complain that they don’t get the respect they are due.
“We are independent, strong, can think on our feet. We have to depend on our own wit,” says Bell. But, because the school’s primary goal is education, the money and attention is given to the teachers, she says.
“Education has a louder voice then we do,” Painter agrees, adding, “The public doesn’t see [school health care] as a necessity.”
Grossnickle says that “teachers don’t realize what we do here.” They’ll “send kids up here and then want to know why they are not back yet.” Werner, at the end of a long career, is a little more forgiving. “This job is very much appreciated. We are really counted on,” she says. -30-