Oak Park school nurse Cam Niederman splits her time between Beye and Mann schools. Niederman, a nurse for more than 20 years and certified school nurse with District 97 for the past 11, is one of two nurses covering more than one Oak Park elementary school.
She also works at Mann Elementary. Lincoln and Hatch are the other two schools that share a nurse.
Niederman said most people think all a school nurse does is put band-aids on knees and elbows. But school nurses in Oak Park do much more than that.
However, before hustling to Beye’s auditorium to oversee vision and hearing screenings for several second-grade classes, Nurse Cam, as she’s called, stops to see a young male student who comes into her office needing”of all things”a band-aid for a scrap on his chin.
When it comes to certified school nurses, Oak Park’s elementary school district is better off than most. Some districts across the state and country have no school nurses at all, or have one or two nurses covering several schools.
The Dist. 97 school board and administration are currently weighing proposed budgets cuts likely to affect a host of programs and personnel”including the district’s nurses. Those working in the district, nevertheless, see themselves as a unique part of Oak Park’s educational system.
“It’s really just amazing what else we do,” said Nurse Cam, whose children went to schools in the district. “The nurses we have right now in Dist. 97, this is kind of what we were made to do.”
And after spending just a day with a few, it becomes clear that there’s more to this particular job than band-aids and boo-boos.
At Irving Elementary, Nurse Christine Paternos-Nowak looks over a young male student who’s not feeling well. And by the way, all of the nurses are referred to as “Nurse” plus their first name”by students and adults.
A teacher’s aide brought the boy down because he wasn’t quite acting like himself. Nurse Chris, who received her certification last spring, checks him over, then phones his parents to let then know how he’s doing. The nurses in the district record every visit on computer. Nurse Chris’ average the previous month was 18 kids per day. The highest she’s recorded was 28.
Calling home in this case was just a precaution. The boy was a little ill over the weekend, his mother told the nurse. They agreed to let him return to class and check on him throughout the day.
“That is one of the most important things we do is communicate, not only with the parents but the staff to make sure the kids are getting what they need,” said Paternos-Nowak, who’s been a nurse for 20 years. “Our main goal as certified nurses is to make sure the kids are in class learning. We do what we can to keep them here.”
Oak Park, though, has long been highly regarded for the number certified nurses throughout its elementary and middle schools. Illinois and many other states do not require school nurses at its schools. But the state’s school code states that if a nurse is hired, he/she must be certified.
At schools without a nurse at all, a counselor, teacher or other staff will end up administering health services to students, sometimes with unhealthy results.
Certified school nurses in Oak Park perform a multitude of tasks beyond administering direct health services to students. They provide some direct instruction in the classroom. They’re a part of the crisis management team, and coordinate their school’s health program. The school nurses write health plans for some students, coordinating that information with staff and teachers. They also assist nurses in other “Buddy” schools if there’s a major emergency. Brooks and Julian, for example, are Buddy schools.
But those are just a few of their tasks, said Nurse Pat Kamarauskas, who’s been a school nurse for 26 years, 15 of those in Oak Park at Percy Julian Middle School.
“There’s role after role a nurse plays in the district,” she said. “I feel it’s a very important role. We don’t just sit here and put band-aids on. Our job is a lot more complicated and a lot more intricate.”
Most of the nurses say they see as many adults as they do children. They’re not allowed to diagnose students. They provide assessments for conditions, and the parents can take those recommendations and contact their family doctor for a full medical diagnosis.
They don’t diagnose adults either. But because they are nurses, adults will wander into their office seeking advice about any number of ailments.
“The staff comes to us for so many things, and treating us as experts in our field. So that’s really a nice feeling,” said Beye School’s Nurse Cam.
Sometimes the nurses are the first ones to spot a major health threat. Nurse Pat recalled a Julian custodian who recently came in seeking her opinion.
“He came in complaining that he wasn’t feeling good. He started to describe his condition, and I knew what it was,” she said. “Well, he was in surgery that night having triple-bypass surgery. He had had a heart attack but didn’t know.”
The custodian is doing well, she said, and is currently in rehab. She didn’t at the time tell him that he had a heart attack, but told him to go see his doctor.
“I can’t tell anybody what it is because that puts me in a diagnostics role,” she said. “We’re not allowed to do that. [But] they do come in for advice, or they come for headaches. I have a whole drawer of medication here just for adults”it keeps them at work.”
Patience with patients
Nurse Pat and Laurie Lyons, the nurse at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School have worked in the district the longest. Nurse Pat has seen plenty in her years. She said there’s no such thing as a “typical day” being a school nurse. On any given school day, she sees a wide range of students”and a few adults. On this particular afternoon, it’s one student after another.
Like one personable male student who comes in complaining of a headache. He tells her that he fell backwards on the playground earlier that morning, bumping his head on the ground. She lets him lie down on a small bed in her office. The student is a bit restless but very talkative. He asks Nurse Pat would a person pass out if they had a concussion? She said that’s not the case.
Such interactions with the kids”ages 11-14 at the middle schools”is one of the other treats Nurse Pat said she enjoys.
“I just love their developing sense of humor and personalities,” she said. “The things they come up with are just hilarious.”
As a precaution, she calls the boy’s home. He doesn’t want to go home, but she tells him she has to do it. Meanwhile, the kids keep coming in. One girl comes in with a sore throat. Nurse Pat gives her some salty water to gargle and has her sit a bit.
“It tastes bad, but it’s good for you,” she tells her.
Another male student comes in for an aspirin for his headache. And another student comes in just wanting a juice before jettisoning to gym class. No one today needs a band-aid.
Nurse Pat said certified school nurses have a diverse background to work with kids and adults.
“We have a background in education and psychology, so it goes above and beyond what people may think,” said Nurse Pat, who is retiring after this school year.
She said she’s really going to miss her job.
“I love being with the kids [and] I love taking care of the people,” she said. “I feel like I’ve really made a contribution to children’s lives in one way or another.”
Nurse Cam, meanwhile, continues with vision and hearing screenings for second graders at Beye. The Illinois Department of Public Health is at the school running the screenings, which take about 20 minutes and have been going on for most of the morning and early afternoon.
Her own children went to schools in Dist. 97. She went back for her certification 11 years ago. She said it was the best move she made.
“I truly love being a school nurse. I wouldn’t think of doing anything else,” she said. “I feel so lucky that I found my passion in life. And school nursing was such a great answer for me. I thought I would only do this for a while, but it’s continued.
“When my kids were little, I wanted to stay in nursing but I couldn’t continue where I was at the time,” Nurse Cam added, referring to her days as a hospital nurse. “At one point I felt like I was going to more funerals than birthday parties.”
School nurses in Oak Park are paid on a teacher’s pay scale, and they’re not full-time positions. They could earn a lot more working in a hospital, but Nurse Cam said the tradeoff is worth it.
“It isn’t the greatest pay, but the payoff is that we get spring break and summers off. So you can’t complain about it,” she said. “Yes, if we were working at a hospital we’d be getting paid more, but our time would be a lot more involved than working in the school system.”
The Oak Park Dist. 97 Board of Education tonight will hear recommendations on staff cuts at their board meeting. Nurse Pat, who will retire this year, thinks Oak Park is better off with the nurses they have.
“You have a psychologist here who works that’s certified. You have social workers that are certified to work in the schools. Then you have all your teachers that are certified to work in the schools,” she said. “Why would you want a nurse who’s not certified?”