NEWTON — The school nurse title has often been synonymous with Band-Aid-givers, temperature-takers and first aid kit experts.
This may have been the case a few decades ago, but today the job is as demanding as any other nursing position.
Jennifer Tuttle, school nurse for North Newton and ACT/South Newton elementary schools, has been providing care to students and staff members for 12 years, and knows how strenuous her job can be.
“I did not know a lot about school nursing when I began because there weren’t that many school nurses in this area,” Tuttle said. “My eyes were widely opened when I came in — it’s nothing like the perception.”
Thanks to a grant Catawba County Public Health received 12 years ago, the department was able to employ more school nurses, Tuttle being one of those.
“One day, I just happened to see an article in the paper that said Public Health received a grant to hire more school nurses,” Tuttle said. “I was the very last interview they did, and I got it, and I have loved it ever since.”
Tuttle explained she has provided care for blind students, students suffering from seizure and diabetes and more.
“A lot of the health conditions you did not see in schools years ago we have now. Those students are in the classroom, and you could never tell a difference,” Tuttle said. “I have students who are in remission for cancer and students who are actively going through chemotherapy for cancer.
“Those kids still come to school, and we monitor them to make sure they are safe and healthy.”
Teresa Younce, a teacher at North Newton Elementary for the past five years, can attest to the work Tuttle does daily for the students.
“She is fabulous with kids, and it doesn’t end at her office door,” Younce said. “We have a student who has a seizure disorder, and part of what happens to this child is she occasionally wets her pants.”
Unfortunately, the child’s parents aren’t always able to afford pull-ups for the child for both home and school, so Tuttle took the matter into her own hands.
“Jennifer went out of her way to reach out to the school district for any funds to provide those things for the child here at school. She also went out and bought some on her own and made sure we had them,” Younce said.
Younce added that Tuttle also has recently purchased a pair of gloves for one of her students after realizing the child did not have any.
“She goes through all of our lost and found items at the end of the school year and washes them so the kids here the following year will have clothes to pull from if they need a new coat or something,” Younce said. “That is absolutely not in her job description, but she takes the time every year to do that.”
Not only does Tuttle provide case management for her students, she also takes the time to educate students, families and staff about various health topics.
“Public Health is all about health promotion and education, which are two of my huge passions, and I get to go everyday into the classrooms and talk to families that come into the office and teach them health promotion and find them resources,” Tuttle said.
One way Tuttle provides students and families with resources like glasses and dental assistance is through the Kids In Need (KIN) Fund.
“A lot of our kids either don’t have insurance and do not qualify for Medicaid or the parents have lost their jobs recently,” Tuttle said. “If we can’t get (KIN funding), we find another way to get the students what they need.
“School nurses end up doing a lot of digging, until we can find a pot of money to help them find what they need.”
Tuttle explained that during her annual health screenings at her schools, she always finds students who aren’t able to see well.
“If you can’t see, then they aren’t going to do well in school,” Tuttle said. “It’s important to the children’s education that we try to give them the tools they need to succeed.”
Another tool Tuttle believes her students and families need is plenty of health education, and she is able to provide them with that through the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) program.
“Both of my schools started the program this year, and it’s awesome. It incorporates healthy lifestyles, exercise, nutrition, and it’s fun,” Tuttle saud. “I have dressed up as fruits and vegetables, and the kids let you be silly and have as much fun with it as much as you want to.”
CATCH is a permanent program and shift in the school environment to encourage students and staff to make healthier choices in their lives, and Tuttle is more than eager to be part of the movement.
Tuttle and the other school nurses across the county also are responsible for educating students and staff when an illness breaks out, like the 2016 shigella outbreak.
“(North Newton Elementary) was one of the schools affected by shigella last year. We got a confirmed phone call last year, and we had to go do a history intake with families and give them information. We had to sanitize the school, and it went on across the county for weeks,” Tuttle explained.
Shigella is a highly-infectious disease that can cause severe diarrhea and is highly contagious, especially in young children.
“We had to step in and act fast to try and contain the illness as much as we could,” Tuttle said.
Without the help of school nurses like Tuttle, the disease could have spread farther than it did, and lasted much longer.
Tuttle said the outbreak was not the first one she has been involved with.
“Several years ago, there was a food-borne outbreak with contaminated chilies, and all of the school nurses had to go door to door to anyone who served food to see if they had any of the food products,” Tuttle said.
At that time, school nurses were assigned quadrants in the county to cover in order to educate the communities and collect recalled food items that could have potentially impacted residents.
Also, Tuttle explained in the event of any type of disaster, school nurses would be called to action by staffing medical emergency shelters.
“We’ve always been geared up for anything, but we have never had to have a medical shelter, thankfully,” Tuttle said.
Throughout her 12 years as a school nurse, Tuttle reflects on the work she has done and looks forward to the students she will provide care for in the future.
“I love that I get to be with these families, and I have seen families go from kindergarten to fifth grade. I’ve gotten to know all of them,” Tuttle said. “When someone asks us what we do every day, it’s hard to remember everything that we are trained and ready for.
“We are like a floating clinic on wheels, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”