Monday, March 28, 2011

School Nurses -- So Few but So Valuable

by Kelley Lindberg

Do you remember being young, getting sick at school, and going to see the school nurse?

That’s not an experience most of our children will ever have.

As the VP for the Utah Food Allergy Network (UFAN), I spent two days last week with a table at the Utah School Nurse Association’s annual convention, meeting Utah’s remaining school nurses and talking with them about food allergies. As we chatted, I asked them how many schools they were responsible for.

The numbers were frightening.

A handful of nurses worked in only one or two schools – most of them charter or private schools. Most of the public school nurses would blink back the hysterical look in their eye, smile bravely, then tell me how many schools they had under their wing – 6, 8, 10, or even 23. One man told me he was a Physician’s Assistant in a clinic, the sole medical provider in his entire rural county, and he’d contracted with that county to be their only school nurse.

The school nurse role is no longer the first line of defense for our children while they’re at school. In many ways, the school nurse has become strictly a consultant. They try to train teachers and administrators to watch for signs of flu or chicken pox. They help make sure action plans are in place at the start of the year for kids with diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, or food allergies, and that the staff understands how to implement them. They remind administrators about vaccination requirements.

But it seems like very few get to interact directly with our children anymore.

That’s a sad but unavoidable result of our constant education cut-backs.

Understanding that we’ll probably never reverse the trend of squeezing funding for basic teacher salaries, let alone school nurse funding, what can we parents do?

First, we must recognize that we are our children’s strongest and fiercest protectors. Although the school nurses would do more if they could, we cannot depend on anyone else to champion our children’s health, so we must be willing to do it ourselves.

We have to educate ourselves on what our child’s health concerns really mean, how to effectively keep them safe, and how to balance that need to keep them safe with the needs of the other 25 or more kids in the class.

We must shoulder the responsibility for training the teachers, lunchroom staff, and office staff to recognize food allergy reactions and administer EpiPens, and work with them to ensure the entire experience feels as “normal” as possible so that no one – on either side of the table – feels ostracized or bullied.

We must work with our own allergists to create a workable medical action plan. (If you don’t have one, use FAAN’s food allergy action plan, which is in common use by many allergists.)

And we must find out who our school nurse is, even if he or she is only in our school for one day a week or less, and work with that nurse, making sure we’re both on the same page and not working at cross purposes.

Because even if the school nurses are spread far too thin across far too many schools and miles, they are still trying their very best to build safety into our children’s school experience.

I was delighted – and a little surprised – at how crowded my Utah Food Allergy Network table was at the convention. At every break, nurses would stop and talk to me about food allergies, asking questions like “Is coconut a tree nut?” or “Do the foods have to be ingested to cause a reaction, or is skin contact bad, too?” They were sharing stories of food-allergic kids they had and some of the policies they’d put into place to help them. They were asking why food allergies seem to be growing so much more common.

And just about every single nurse I talked to signed up to join our UFAN school nurse email list, so that we could send them updates about things like food allergy guidelines, new legislation, or other information that could help them do their herculean jobs more efficiently.

They care. They work extremely hard. And they want to learn more. We parents can help them, and they will do what they can to help us.

Thank you, school nurses everywhere.


foodallergymom said...

Kelley... I love this! I've wanted to be a part of the fall nurses conference here in Boise and wasn't sure how to go about it. Would love to touch base with and figure how to approach this with the nurses group. Thanks for doing so much to help raise awareness in our communities and schools.

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

School nurses and allergy advocates -- it's a match made in heaven! Contact your local school nurse, ask them for a contact at their nurse association, and just call them up and ask if you can have a table. They charge for commercial ventures, but they may waive the fee for non-profits. They also look for speakers -- if you've got a presentation, ask if they'd be interested in having you speak. Good luck! More questions? Contact me at

foodallergymom said...

Will be in touch! Thanks again for the advise.