There is a funny meme that periodically surfaces among members of my profession: a little boy sits at his desk, hand under his chin as he ponders, I wonder if the school nurse is missing me today. I haven’t seen her yet and it’s already 12:30.
For as long as I have been a school nurse, I’ve found my work fulfilling and joyful. Feelings of accomplishment are tied to working beside my nursing colleagues, consulting with teachers, and partnering with parents. Mostly, though, the elementary school students I care for are at the heart of what matters most.
So often administrators have reminded school personnel that “the 2020-2021 school year is like no other.” It’s the default meeting opener. Sadly, it’s true — COVID-19 has changed the way we do everything. In addition to my health office, we now have a medical waiting room and a triage area. The medical waiting room is a place where students with symptoms of suspected COVID-19 can be isolated. I have configured a triage area outside of my office for assessing students’ symptoms and then determining whether they can enter my office — only one student at a time, of course. Masks, distancing, and hand sanitizer are de rigueur.
In September, as I prepared for my students to return to school safely in a hybrid model, I realized with unexpected sadness that I wouldn’t be spending time with my friendly “Frequent Fliers,” a term of true affection among school nurses. Frequent Fliers are a small but tenacious contingent of students who for one reason or another like to visit the health office . . . a lot. Their headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, or tears might be due to stress, fatigue, hunger, work avoidance (usually math), or a hectic morning getting to school. They know these symptoms will get them a golden ticket to a rest on the health office cot.
Inevitably, boredom sets in and conversation begins — sports, lunch, recess, the time on the clock, why the (stuffed toy) Grinch is in my office and do I think he is funny or scary. (For the record, scary, but he can be a springboard for heart-to-heart talks.)
This is the start of kinship and understanding. It’s all part of the nursing assessment that ends with, “I think you are good to go back to class now. If you need a break, just tell me. You don’t have to say you are sick if you are not.” The next time my Frequent Flier appears at my door, we agree on a five-minute break. The health office and school nurse offer a safe place and refuge for students experiencing apprehension. Reducing worries and fears can improve academic achievement.
This crazy pandemic has surprised me in many ways. My biggest astonishment on the job has been how much I miss those Frequent Fliers and how just their appearance at my door can make me grin. I miss telling them that it just wouldn’t be a good day without seeing them. I miss reminding them that they have five minutes and then it’s back to class. These students add something important to my labors. The regular contact is an opportunity to get to know students and to foster trust. They may not realize it, but it also gives me a chance to identify underlying physical and emotional concerns so I can help facilitate change and improvement.
Some school nurses don’t like the term Frequent Fliers and prefer to call these students “Frequent Visitors.” But for me, Frequent Flier implies a kindness and ongoing helpfulness — and a mutual benefit. “Visitors” come and go like drop-ins whose stop is brief and offhand.
I have always been grateful for work that I love and thrive on. Yet I never thought of it as a luxury. This school year, however, is like no other. COVID-19 has made me profoundly aware that my work is one of life’s blessings.
So, to all my Frequent Fliers: it’s 12:30 and I am missing you. See you soon.
Jane Reilly Ferrara is a school nurse in Wilmington. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.