Mary Ellen Sjostrom says her interest in nursing first sparked at age 7 when she underwent an appendectomy and post surgery was cared for by a kind, compassionate hospital nurse. "In those days, they kept you in the hospital forever, and I really liked my nurse," says Sjostrom, for the past 20 years the school nurse at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
But the true watershed moment for her came in a comment she'll never forget.
"When I was in 8th grade, I said I wanted to be a doctor, and my teacher said to me: 'You can't be a doctor, you are a girl.' So, I thought, I can't be a doctor because I am a girl, so I will be a nurse. When I tell the students that story, they just can't believe it," says Sjostrom, an RN who is retiring in June at age 70.
In mid-May, a capstone to Sjostrom's career was being given the Dr. William Fitzsimmons Award by the Oak Park Department of Public Health. The annual award recognizes individuals and organizations that have helped to make Oak Park a healthier place to live.
"Mary Ellen has been absolutely a great asset, as well as very collaborative and helpful for us, as well as shown a lot of concern for the welfare of the kids at the high school. Essentially, she has done all this with grace and compassion, and, so we certainly do think she is very deserving of the award," says Margaret Provost-Fyfe, the village's health director.
Sjostrom's "mini emergency room" for OPRF staff and students is up a flight of stairs, through a double door and down a hallway. There, for the last two decades, Sjostrom has been triaging everything from minor bruises to life threatening health crises.
"I would say that 25 percent of the kids come in for minor issues," Sjostrom says. "But, at OPRF we have 3,200 plus students, as well as a large staff, and a daycare. So, I am responsible for all those aspects, which include seeing students with chronic illnesses, and tending to the needs of a very large special education population, with some of them having very specific and serious physical needs… and we take care of all of that here."
The first smiling face students, staff and the babies in daycare see, though, is probably Sjostrom's long-standing health services secretary, Marilyn Karrow. She has been in place with Sjostrom since 1996 and has chosen to retire with her in June, after 18 years.
In her support role, Karrow has helped Sjostrom manage all the health records and more, freeing up the school nurse to do screenings, work with the wellness community in student health initiatives, and work in collaboration with the village's health department in emergency planning.
However, on her watch, she says no illness provoked school closings have occurred. But, a few health crises have broken out, including several years ago when the health department staged an H1NI flu clinic, where a multitude of high schoolers were screened and vaccinated at Village Hall, thanks in part to volunteer Sjostrom, Provost-Fyfe says.
50 years a nurse in 2015
Born in Chicago, the former long-time Oak Parker says she was the first in her "blue collar" family to attend college.
Upon graduation from nursing school, the new RN worked in a hospital's surgical intensive care unit for 16 years, eventually becoming the head nurse who felt that it was "exciting and innovative at the time because intensive care nursing, in the late 1960s to early 1970s, was a new area" she says.
After marrying Mark Sjostrom, and then becoming a mother of three girls, Sjostrom stowed away her nursing uniform for 15 years, including the years when one daughter at 28 months old was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away at age 6.
"I spent a lot of time down at Children's Memorial, and she eventually passed away after a bone marrow transplant," says Sjostrom, who says both of her other daughters graduated from OPRF during her tenure.
Yet, still wanting to be a nurse, she took a refresher course and eventually took the job at OPRF.
Two years later, Karrow, now 62, joined in, and since then the nurse's office at OPRF has averaged about 100 patients a day, all of whom are required to fill out a form saying why they are in to see Nurse Sjostrom.
"I had a student who came in and wrote on his slip, 'red headed acne,' and he was a red head. So, I said to him, tell me about this red headed acne. Well, he looked at me like I had three heads and said what are you talking about? Well…he had real bad penmanship, and it was really 'real bad headache,'" Sjostrom says. "Sometimes I wonder where I am going to get my laughs from after June. They are so wonderful, sweet and funny. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have had this opportunity to work with these kids."