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Every school has a nurse to keep students healthy and ready to learn
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Paula Sawyer, a nurse at Gainesville High School, helps cheerleader Stephanie Reyes, who is allergic to bees, after she was stung by a wasp. Reyes' friend Jailyn Cade, also a cheerleader, watches in the corner. Even in the summer, Sawyer sees students who need medical attention when events and camps are held at the school. - photo by David Barnes

School nurses help when an illness, injury or chronic condition affects a student’s ability to learn.

Each school in the Hall County and Gainesville districts have a school nurse on hand to help with a variety of needs. There are also other nurses that help students who need more detailed attention.

Mamie Coker, health services coordinator for Hall County Schools, said school nurses “help keep students healthy and in the classroom allowing them to be better learners.”

In 2016-17, the nurses in Hall dealt with 106,700 student health issues, which included illnesses, injuries and administering medications for ongoing and chronic medical issues. Coker said 98 percent of those students were able to go back to class.

“Many students do not have a medical home, and it is the school nurse who assists the families to  get needed medical care,” she said. “It is very common for a student to come in to see the nurse and say, ‘My mama told me to come see you because she can't take off and lose her job.’"

Coker cited one student who kept coming to a school clinic with “a fast heart rate.”

“The student had been seen by her family doctor and was told her fast heart rate was due to anxiety,” she said. “The school nurse, upon assessment over several days, thought there was something more and urged the parents and helped them get an appointment with a pediatrician cardiologist.” The student was diagnosed with a medical issue that was then corrected.

Two other times, Coker said school nurses noticed that “something was not right” with a student and encouraged medical followups that led to diagnoses of cancer.

In addition to dealing with students who are not feeling well, school nurses also provide help to the more than 20 percent of Hall students diagnosed with chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, severe life-threatening allergies and seizures. Type 1 diabetes has grown among Hall students from five in 2001 to 130 in 2017. Type 1 diabetics get help with management of the condition, including making sure they take insulin as needed.

Paula Sawyer, the school nurse at Gainesville High School and supervisor for all the nurses in that school system, said nurses see between 15-60 students each day.

“The higher numbers are usually seen during flu or allergy season,” Sawyer said. “Every day has some of the same scheduled procedures, but each day also brings something new and different to the table. Most days begin the minute the nurse arrives on campus.

“Some students get off the bus or out of the car and come straight to the clinic,” she added. “They may have been feeling badly at home, but the parent will tell them to go on to school and ‘see how you feel’ or ‘just go see the nurse when you get there.’ The nurse will assess the student and contact the parent if the student needs to go home. Sometimes, that can be difficult, as the parent will have already left for work or might not have transportation to come and pick up their child.”

Nurses also provide training for teachers and staff so they can help students with specific medical conditions, Sawyer said.  

“School nurses are the liaison between the student, parent, teacher, administration and health care provider of the student, and as a team we put a plan of care in place to provide a healthy learning environment for that student,” she said.” When a student feels well, they are better learners.”

Sawyer said common complaints are stomach aches, headaches, cold symptoms, nosebleeds, allergic reactions, playground and gym class injuries.

“On occasion, we will see a student with head lice, something that freaks out parents and teachers but is really not a dangerous condition but more of a nuisance,” she said. “We are constantly attempting to educate families about head lice, and that it does not always originate in the school but anywhere. It's just that teachers and school nurses are usually the first ones to recognize it and contact the parent about it.”

Sawyer said some people seem to see school nursing jobs as a lesser field of nursing.

“It is simply not true,” she said. “I learn something new everyday in school nursing.  I probably have more stress than I ever had in hospital nursing — as you are really the sole health care provider in your school of over 2,000 patients.”

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