Karen Truesdale knows how to save lives.
It’s something the Bellefonte Area School District certified school nurse has done before.
And when it comes to school nurses, she, alongside fellow certified school nurse Val Fulton, and a group of aides prove the job is more than bandaging up students with scraped knees, and sending sick kids home.
“We’re almost like the first responders to health problems when kids come to school,” Truesdale said.
But health education and keeping up with new medical advances are also part of the job.
It came to fruition sometime more than five years ago when a Bellefonte Elementary School fifth-grader came to school in the morning not feeling well.
“I was going into my office from speaking with a teacher when I saw him in the hall,” Truesdale said. “I said, ‘Are you looking for me? Let’s go in my office.’ He was telling me how he was feeling. We checked his blood pressure; his heart was beating fast and he was breaking out in hives.”
Right away she noticed the boy was going into anaphylactic shock and got an EpiPen autoinjector — a medical device for injecting epinephrine to treat anaphylaxis, a serious or life-threatening allergic reaction.
She also alerted the school’s vice principal to get a defibrillator and to call 911.
When Truesdale administered the EpiPen, the boy’s hives went away, his blood pressure came up and his heart beat went down.
“I kept telling him, ‘You’re OK, you’re going to feel better,’ ” she said. “In those moments, you’re the one who needs to keep cool so you get that trust with the person you’re helping.”
Truesdale said she’s known the boy, who is now a Bellefonte Area High School student, since he was in kindergarten.
The boy and his family were unaware he had a peanut allergy.
“He said that morning for breakfast he had some peanut butter on toast — it’s something he had every day, but the allergy built up without having symptoms before,” Truesdale said. “If we wouldn’t have acted, or didn’t know how to act, I could have lost this child.”
Truesdale said she last saw the boy when he was in ninth grade and found out his allergy to peanuts is dissipating.
“It’s just one of those freaky things that you never know is going to happen,” she said.
In the life
A day for a school nurse starts before the school day actually begins, and doesn’t end in the summer just because school isn’t in session.
Nurses sometimes stroll into school just after 7 a.m. — about an hour before the school day starts.
For Truesdale, it’s time to get health records in order, check emails, organize equipment and do other miscellaneous work.
“You want to get ready because you don’t know who is going to come in with a PE (physical education) excuse, or if a kid needs treatment because he threw up or got hurt on the bus,” Truesdale said. “Those are some of the things we need to prepare for first thing in the morning.”
Other than general nursing, Fulton said, they help with counseling; assist kids with problems in and out of the classroom; provide education about health; hold community health events; and assist kids who may need help with clothing, food, health care, and vision and dental care.
They also started a memorial blood drive at the district in memory of a student who died; started a seminar at the high school about drug awareness; and wrote a grant to help promote education on organ donation curriculum and awareness.
Truesdale said district administration hasn’t been notified whether they received the grant, but if it is awarded, the three-year grant will give a chunk of money to the school district for those programs that include $5,000 the first year, $3,000 the second year, and $1,500 the third year.
This school year, Fulton also plans to hold a session about sun safety and skin care.
Work also restarts immediately after the last day of school.
Fulton said the “docket for the summer” begins with paperwork; writing health plans for kids with special needs; cleaning, rearranging and restocking rooms; writing plan for education programs for the next school year; updating files; and managing more paperwork.
Contacting families about updated health plans, and reviewing pros and cons from the previous year are more summer responsibilities.
Truesdale added that the district also has a health policy that is regularly revised.
What it takes
At current, Fulton and Truesdale coordinate care for all kids at the Bellefonte Area School District. That includes four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, and a private Catholic school that seeks their assistance.
To be a school nurse, a person must hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and complete at least 15 extra credit hours beyond undergraduate classes.
“The medical technology and medical advances are constant and there is always something to learn,” Truesdale said.
Summer is a good time to brush up on the updates.
“It’s a good time to do a lot of education — taking credits online for nursing … and courses through Penn State that has a continuing education class for certified school nurses to help keep up with hands-on learning as well as book learning,” Truesdale said.
But as much as school nurses give back to students, they said there is also so much they get in return.
“Sometimes just a simple thank you from a child who may be having a bad day is a reward in itself,” Fulton said. “I revel in kids’ succeeding in school and enjoy seeing them in day-to-day activities, as well as the extracurricular activities. I like having a part in children’s academic success and supporting them while they achieve milestones.”
Beyond school nursing
Bellefonte Area certified school nurse Karen Truesdale started a program about eight years ago that gives other school nurses from central Pennsylvania a chance to meet and bounce ideas off each other.
“I just felt the need to have a meeting once every couple months with nurses from other districts and see how they are doing things — what’s good for them, and get ideas about what programs they’re instituting,” Truesdale said.
Truesdale said it started by sending an email to nurses from school districts that serve Centre County.
“I just wanted to see if anyone local was interested in meeting, and passing a lot new information with each other,” Truesdale. “It kind of snowballed from there.”
The first meetings started at Truesdale’s Bellefonte home, and then were held elsewhere within other districts. Some of the meetings, she said, include a guest speaker.
Some area school nurses dropped out, but Truesdale said the group gained others from Jersey Shore, Loganton, Sugar Valley and more.
It now includes about 15 nurses from school districts in Centre, Clinton and Lycoming counties.
“Not all schools have the same students with the same health problems,” Truesdale said. “We kind of use this as educational outreach with each other. It’s important to be on top of things, and there is sometimes no better way to learn than from your peers.”