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A Nurse's Tale


Of buck teeth, nebulizers, and the Tooth Fairy


By Maggie Beall

A 15-MINUTE NIGHTMARE:

It was a quarter past three in the health room and I had a child who had been there since 2 p.m.—a little third-grade girl who had a fever. No one was available at home to come get her.

At 3:15, she vomited across a huge area of the health room in front of the asthma inhaler cabinet.

Simultaneously, two students from phys. ed. came in saying, "We need our inhalers!" I checked them with the stethoscope, jumped over the vomit, and got the inhalers for them.

At the same time, there was a kindergartener in the bathroom, standing in a puddle of urine because of a bladder accident, naked because he had taken off his wet clothes.

Meanwhile, buses were rolling into the parking lot.

As I escorted the sick child out to the bus so the driver would know he had a child with a fever, the rest of the staff were waving to me from the parking lot, "Come here, Maggie! Come here, Maggie!" A child had hit his head in phys. ed. and I had to make a decision: Should we put him on the bus?

In assessing his pupillary response, I noticed something was not quite right, so I got his mom to come get him. He ended up being transferred to the hospital with swelling of the brain.

That was one of the worst quarter hours of my career. Luckily, it's not all like that.

I became a school nurse because, as a child, I had what we call buck teeth, or an overbite, to the point where my brothers called me "Bucky Beaver."

My parents could not afford the orthodontic treatment that I needed, but our school nurse, Marie Kelly, took a picture of my smile and sent it to our state capital in Albany, where they provided the orthodontia that changed my life: I could smile, not cover my mouth with my hand, and not be afraid of being teased.

Another reason I became a school nurse is that I enjoy long-term relationships, and when you work with a family, you may have a relationship as long as 12 years by the time all the siblings have finished school.

I've worked in hospitals, but there, it's a very short relationship.

The thing I like the most (and that I didn't expect when I became a school nurse) is the response I get from students. When I go into classrooms, I like to use drama. When we do dental hygiene, I dress as the Tooth Fairy. Later on, they'll see my costume and say, "There! We know you're the Tooth Fairy!"

And I'll just say, "Oh, no. We just look alike, and I let her leave her costume here."

Since I started as a school nurse 23 years ago, many things have changed in our student population—drastically.

Some of the most pronounced changes are in technology. We have students who, 20 years ago, might have been in specialty care centers because of their disabilities—a school for the deaf or the blind, or a children's rehab institute.

Now, because of technology, we have user-friendly equipment that allows children to attend their community schools.

It's not unusual to have nebulizers going in the health room. We have students with cerebral palsy in motorized wheel chairs. We're doing bladder catheterizations, tube feedings, insulin pump monitoring.

So technology has brought students who would not have been in their community into the school—where they should be. But it's taken us a little time. We're scurrying around to catch up with the needs of those students.

And that's one of the many reasons why it's so important that every school have a qualified school nurse.

You really need someone who can see the difference between a harmless bump on the head and a concussion.

Maggie Beall is the school nurse at Dassa McKinley Elementary School in West Sunbury, Pennsylvania.

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March, 2008