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Colleen Wall’s nurses office at Melissa Jones School is filled with heartfelt notes from students, all signs of gratitude for a much-appreciated school nurse. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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It’s not even halfway through the school year, but Colleen Wall’s office at Melissa Jones School (MJS) is already displaying plenty of heartfelt notes from students and classroom posters, decorated with adjectives like “loving, caring, kind, compassionate”—all signs of gratitude for a much-appreciated school nurse.
Now 15 years on the job, Colleen is the most senior nurse serving among those at Guilford Public Schools (GPS) and has been the MJS school nurse since her first day joining the district as an employee. She’s not only familiar with the North Guilford school building through her work, but also as a mom to four former Jones School kids.
Serving as a school nurse wasn’t her first plan. Right out of nursing school and following the completion of her six-month hospital rotation, Colleen chose to become a coronary intensive care unit nurse at St. Raphael’s Hospital.
“It was very interesting to me. I just loved the rhythm of it,” says Colleen. “I did that for about 9 or 10 years. Then I stayed home to raise my kids, and they all went here. And when my last one was in this school, I thought it was time for me to go back to work—and I was going to go back to the hospital.”
As she and her husband raised their four children in town, Colleen got involved as parent, especially in helping with their Guilford youth sports programs. Fortunately for the families of MJS, that connection, and a bit of serendipity, served to lead Colleen to her next job.
“I ran into a [MJS] teacher at a soccer game, and he said, ‘You know, there’s going to be an opening for a school nurse.’ So, I thought about it and I said, ‘Maybe I’ll give it a try—that’s got to be fun,’” Colleen says. “And here I am, 15 years later!”
Like all GPS school nurses, she is the only medical personnel on staff at the building at all times. But also like every nurse in the district, Colleen loves working with kids and being there to help them.
“We’re there for the kids. That’s the bottom line. We’re there to keep them healthy, so they can learn,” she says.
Colleen says one common misconception about the role of a school nurse is the cuts and bumps theory.
“Most people think we do Band Aids and ice packs, and send them back,” she says. “But it’s a lot more than that. I know the parents that have kids with medical issues get it, and they’re very appreciative of what we do. But that’s my job. That’s what I’m here for.”
In today’s world, children are coping with a variety of medical challenges affecting their lives, and today’s school nurses are equipped and updated to serve them.
“We’re always learning, going to in-services, going to conferences,” says Colleen. “We will accommodate anything medical, whether that’s working with more diabetics and kids with allergies—we’ve got a little of everything.”
It’s also a job that requires a lot of compassion, and Colleen says school nurses have plenty to give.
“Sometimes I wonder how much people understand of what we do, and how much of our hearts we put into our jobs,” she says.
Reassuring parents with worries about sending their child with special medical needs off to school is another important role for school nurses, she adds.
“Parents worry. I see it in them when their children come into kindergarten. Part of my job is to reassure them that we’re all here to keep kids safe,” says Colleen. “If their child has an allergy to peanuts, I’ll explain there’s a peanut-free table in cafeteria that’s cleaned with different utensils, and that teachers are made aware of the [student with the allergy]. I give each teacher information on anybody they need to be aware of—and the substitutes, too. And after I tell [parents] all of that, you can see their anxiety level go down.”
Colleen really enjoys not only assisting students with their special medical needs, but also helping them to learn how to help themselves.
“If a student is diabetic, we can see them four times a day, depending on how their day’s going,” says Colleen. “I had a mom say to me one year, ‘Thank you so much for what you taught her; she’s on her own now.’ She’d come in and we’d do math, as far as adding up what carbs did you have for lunch; so how much insulin do you think [that requires]. We’d do it together, a little math lesson. Because I wanted her to learn how to figure it out, because when she gets older, she has to. And they do. They learn. They’re pretty capable.”
Like all GPS school nurses, Colleen is also the school’s first responder for medical issues of any stripe and takes on a bit of triage management whenever her office fills with several kids at a time.
“We assess the minute they walk in,” she says. “I’ve had probably six to eight at time in here. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens, so you have to figure out which one needs to be taken care of first.”
Colleen was at MJS during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 and says policies are in place for GPS schools help to keep students safe and healthy during flu season and other challenging times of year.
“We have policies to try and help with that, like you can’t send them back to school until they’re fever-free for 24 hours, because we don’t want them to spread it other kids,” she notes.
Another way school nurses work to keep their school population healthy, especially the elementary set, is through standard protocols such as vision and hearing tests, and by teaching kids good hygiene habits and encouraging them to exercise and eat right.
“We’re teaching them about washing their hands and coughing in the arm—and if you forget and cough in your hands, it’s OK, just go wash them. When they do, I say, ‘Great job, I’m so proud of you!’” Colleen says. “We’re also always teaching them healthy eating and about exercising. A lot of kids will say to me, ‘I just want to go home and play a video game.’ I try to tell them to limit themselves and get some exercise. It’s really important.”
Overseen by GPS nurse supervisor Pamela Neleber, Colleen and her district nursing peers rely on one another as colleagues, even though they may be in different buildings.
“Pam Neleber, our nurse supervisor, is very supportive and we can always call her with a question or a problem. We also call each other with different questions, because we’re the only ones in our schools. We kind of bounce things off each other,” says Colleen, who’s also quick to note that she is the district’s senior nurse just by virtue of only one year more of service than her good friend and A.W. Cox Elementary School nurse Gayle Golia.
Colleen says her work is also greatly supported by the faculty and staff at MJS.
“I have a great social worker here, but if she’s busy, we really work well together, and that makes a big difference,” says Colleen. “Maybe part of it is the world that we’re living in right now, some of these kids need a little TLC, so you give them a little comfort and they’re ready to go back and try again. If that’s what they need you for, you can do that. We also have a great gym teacher; he’s young and energetic, and he just started a Fitness Friday [to] try to teach the kids just to do a little exercise every day. And the kids love it.”
By the looks of the colorful posters on the walls of her nurse’s office, many decorated with hearts and words of thanks and appreciation, the kids love Colleen, too. And she loves displaying their messages.
“I don’t take it down until I run out of room. I think it really adds to the room. It brightens it up, especially when the kindergarteners come in. They’re a little scared, so it helps,” says Colleen. “Just yesterday, a student bumped his nose and I took care of him, and he came down with his little note,” she says, pointing to a simple, hand-lettered note reading “I love Mrs. Wall.”
“How could you not love this job?” she asks. “I do love the job, and I love the kids.”
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