Some days, 15 minutes can seem like an eternity…and then there are 15 minutes in the life of Maggie Beall, school nurse at Dassa McKinley Elementary School. She wrote about those minutes on our website, in “A Nurse’s Tale.”
As a recent day came to a close at her West Sunbury, Penn., school, she faced: a feverish third-grader who vomited in the health room, right in front of the asthma inhaler cabinet; two students who needed their inhalers at that moment; a kindergartener holed-up in the bathroom who’d stripped out of his wet clothes after he had an accident; and a boy who hit his head in PE and would have boarded the school bus home, had Maggie not been there to quickly assess his pupillary response, determine he had swelling on the brain, and send him to the hospital instead.
That is called “handling your business.”
To Maggie Beall and the school nurses from coast to coast who do their jobs with the strength of Atlas, the grace of a swan, and the vitality of the Energizer Bunny: Happy School Nurse Day!
Every year in May, we give a round of applause to the nurses who are providing students with the one-on-one attention, support, and comfort they need. Their duties range from the mundane to the heroic and they never know what they’ll encounter from one day (or minute) to the next. I’m just glad they’re part of our team.
Beth Mattey, RN, president of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), tells a story about a school nurse whose actions saved a life.
The student was brought to the nurse’s office because he kept falling asleep in class. No one could pick him up from home. The nurse began her assessment as soon as the student came through her door. As required by the standards of care, she took the student’s blood pressure, but had trouble getting a reading. She asked the student to tell her why he was so tired. It turned out that he’d taken a drug overdose.
There was a time when overdoses of any kind in school were rare. But with the opioid crisis enveloping so many communities, nurses are seeing more of these. In fact, the NASN in 2015 recommended that school nurses should facilitate access to naloxone, a nasal spray that quickly reverses overdoses.
Regardless of what they face, we need school nurses now more than ever. And yet, there’s a shortage of them that’s likely to get worse as more of those who’ve been on the job for a while retire.
The average school nurse is over 55, according to NASN’s 2015 survey; fewer than 16 percent are under 40. The shortage is underscored by stories like the one from a couple of years ago in Philadelphia, where a 12-year-old died after an asthma attack at a school without a full-time nurse.
The recommended ratio for school nurses is one for every 750 students, but the most appropriate ratio will depend on the student population being served; if students have more complex health care needs, the optimal ratio is closer to 1:125. The average ratio varies widely across the country—from a high of one for every 396 students to a low of one for every 4,000 students.
In a 2015 survey, the NASN found that on average, nurses are covering more than one building, and as many as 1,000 students.
(The survey also yielded some good news: The number of nurses who assisted a parent or student with enrolling in Medicaid or another low-cost health care program fell dramatically in 2015. The NASN attributed this to an all-time low in the number of children who lack health insurance. Thanks, Affordable Care Act!)
As for Nurse Maggie, she’s lucky to be in one building, where she gets to forge close relationships with families. She became a nurse because of her own interactions with the school nurse when she was a child in New York state. Maggie’s parents couldn’t afford to fix her very pronounced overbite, but the school nurse took a picture of her smile and sent it to the state capital, and her family got money for the orthodontia she badly needed.
“I could smile, not cover my mouth with my hand, and not be afraid of being teased,” Nurse Maggie says.
School nurses: They keep kids healthy, and they can even change lives.