Person of the Week

Sharon Waters

Special Needs School Nurse

A little boy was choking terribly.  I was able to clear his airway so he could breathe.  I just took to nursing and loved it.  I had one pocket with Kleenex  just for me and another pocket of Kleenexes just to wipe children’s snotty noses as I was walking down the hall.   Not all people can deal with that.  I can.  

1.  What led you to the mission of being a special needs school nurse?

The opportunity was put in front of me.  I had not worked for sixteen years.  I was between having kids and working again.  The opportunity was presented to me and I took it!

I was four years with a little boy who had AIDS. This child was coming from another community.  He had been abused, not physically, but mentally and isolated by people at his school.  His parents chose to move him to our district.

My title was Educational Necessary Help Aid.  My duties were to watch this AIDS child and be with him while he was in school.  A lot of the teachers wanted this child – because they also got me!  I could help set up the new computers (which were first appearing the classroom), set up bulletin boards, and help the other kids as well (such as helping them with math).  I was helping the teacher as much as I was helping the child with AIDS.

Because of all the problems in the community, the uncertainties of AIDS, and fear of putting the public at risk, they decided to have somebody with him the whole time he was at school.  It was during the crucial time when nobody knew anything about AIDS.  Everybody was afraid that they could catch AIDS.  It was as if they thought you could get AIDS just by looking at someone.  There was a big uproar in the community about letting a child with AIDS attend school and that’s why I was hired to follow him around.

I had to have eyes on him the whole time to be sure that there would be no contamination of any way.  It was presented to me, “Would you like to do this?  I said, “Yes.”  It was nothing that I had thought about doing, so I was with him for four years.  I stood out with him on the playground, but wasn’t in the same room with him all the time.  After those four years, a lot had calmed down and there was a lot more information on AIDS.  People weren’t as terrified of AIDS and people realized that you couldn’t catch it just by sitting by somebody.

When this child went into the sixth grade in another building, they decided that no longer did they need me to be with him all the time.  So, I was without a job and I literally looked in the paper and saw an opening at the William M. BeDell Achievement and Resource Center.  I talked to a technologist at the school and this person said, “Oh Sharon, you would love the job!”  I applied for it and got it. I had a broken wrist and I told them, “Well, I’ve got another month with this cast.”  Even with a broken arm, I got the job.  The guy said, “That doesn’t matter, we need a nurse!”

There is really no classroom or formal training for this kind of work.  You get on the job training!  You learn by doing, observing, and seeing.  I’ve learned a lot!  No two days are ever the same.  You never know what you are going to encounter.  You learn to be very patient and tolerant.

For instance, there was a nurse asking about restraining a child.  Where I worked there was no restraining anybody.  No matter how they were acting, we talked them down.  We kept them from hurting others and themselves.  They might try to pull our hair out, but we didn’t restrain them.  We just kept calm and quiet and cool and collect, and worked on their little hands to talk them down and let go.  Being calm does wonders.

In one place I worked, out of seventy-five kids, maybe ten could walk independently.  Maybe fifteen were potty trained.  Most were in wheel chairs or used walkers.  Maybe twenty-five were verbal.  I loved the work.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

What I’m doing now is just helping the kids.  I’m taking care of scrapes and bumps and doing other things such as going with the special needs class on field trips.  They couldn’t go if I didn’t go with them – or if a nurse didn’t go with them.  In this way we can reassure the parents that their kids will be OK and I will watch them.  For instance if they have a seizure, I will know what to do.

Students go on field trips out in the community.  The school is trying to teach these students life skills.  They go from sixth grade through high school.  They go to lunch out.  They take their iPads and push, “I want pizza”, or “I want chicken”, or “I want a small drink”.  This is so rewarding.  They also have their own money and they take it and pay their own bill.  They learn the value of coins.  I work with them and show them how to pay the bill and remind them they have to leave a tip.  It’s so rewarding to see them be able to do this.

There is one little non-verbal girl who is ambulatory and potty trained, but she needs an iPad to communicate.  To see here use that iPad is just unbelievable.

(Now there are iPads that help with the talking.  Phrases can be programmed in and they can let their needs be known such as, “I’m hungry”, “I’m thirsty”, “I need to use the bathroom”, or “Thank you”.)

Where I worked before, I was trying to get the best medical care for the kids.  I had to do an awful lot of networking between the doctors and the parents.  Parents wouldn’t understand things.  They would go to the hospital and come back and they would be told things but wouldn’t understand what they were being told.  The information wasn’t really explained to them.  I would explain it to them.

I would also encourage them to go to specialists who could help them.  I encouraged them to get the best quality of life for their children.  One example is feeding tubes in the stomach.  Those are big things for parents to say, “Yes, I’ll do this.”  In this way the child could be fed and healthy and happy because they would not be hungry any more.  Before the tube, they were choking on every bite they took.  Things like that had to be worked out.

I also had to encourage the parents to let the child try things like walking.  Even though it was hard, I asked them not to look at their child as disabled.  I told them, “Treat them as normal as you can.  Give them appropriate toys.  If they are twenty-one, don’t give them a doll to play with.”

When the children got to be eighteen, I encouraged the social workers to help them find a group home, if they could.  This was very hard for parents.  They feel like they are letting go.  They think they are not being good parents because they are not taking care of their own children.  But what they didn’t understand is that they might not outlive their child.  If they don’t outlive that child, the child has to go somewhere.  When they have to go somewhere with no preparation for it, it’s very traumatic.  They are living through losing their parents and then they are living through losing their home – and everything else.  We worked very hard to lead parents to that goal.  They could still visit and get them to go places and have fun with them, but that adult child could have their own life.  If something happened to the parents, the child would be better able to cope with the loss.

3.  What was your best day as a special needs school nurse?

One of the things that really touched me tremendously was going to a child’s wake.  Next to the casket was an award this child had gotten.  I should back up and explain. Every year we had a field day in the summer time for the children.  They gave out trophies to the children.  They also gave out ribbons.  When I first started working, they would ask for donations for trophies such as used bowling, baseball, or soccer trophies.  These are what they gave the kids.

They would give the kids these old trophies — even though the trophies had somebody else’s name on them.  This bothered me so much because the next day these parents would send these trophies back.  They meant nothing.

I decided to approach the administration and tell them something had to be done.  I got a local place to donate plaques for all the trophies.  I took all the donated trophies and tore them apart and put generic tops on them.  I peeled off the plaques and put them on the trophies.  Some of the awards were for such events as the “Looker” when a child had to stare for thirty seconds at something.  We would have a ball throw or a ball roll.  These events were at their level.

So, I had the plaques say the event and the place, first, second, or third.  After we started doing that, we didn’t get the trophies back.  When I attended this child’s wake, on the side of the coffin was a first place trophy and a ribbon.  (I had taken ribbons donated from an organization, cut the ribbons up, and put decals on the top of them.)

The mother of this child was telling everybody how wonderful this kid did in these events and she was so excited that she had these trophies and ribbons.  I walked out of there and said to the social worker, “You know there were times when I was working on the trophies and I would think, ‘Is it worth it’.  Looking at this family, I won’t stop now.  If it isn’t worth it to the kids, it is worth it to the parents because this mother had something to hang on to that this child had accomplished.”

Another time I had the opportunity to go to funeral of a person with whom I had worked.  I had not seen this young man or his mother for ten plus years.  When the mother saw me, she hugged me and she couldn’t thank me enough for the things I had done for her son.  I didn’t think I had done that much.  It was very, very rewarding to think that she thought that much of me.  She said, “Oh my gosh.  I’m so glad you came.  I was so wishing you would come.”  That was the first thing she said.  I hadn’t seen her for ten years.  That was very rewarding.

I see kids grow in school.  You work so hard to get them to do small things.  There was one little boy who was almost nonverbal.  I was teaching him to sign and say the color of his medicine.  He also was learning that this medication was for seizures.  I was working for over six months with him.  He looked at up at me and signed that this was medicine and pointed to his head — that this medicine was for seizures.  This was very rewarding.  You work so hard and then they finally get it!  Then every time he would see me and I had pills, he would sign to let me know that this was medication and that it was for his head.  This was very rewarding.

4.  What was your worst day as a special needs school nurse?

We can be overworked at some times or pulled in several directions.  I had a beeper at one time.  If they put a 1 in, it meant such-and-such.  If they put a 2 in, it meant such-and-such.  If they put a 5 in, it meant such-and-such.  I found my beeper going off and having to go to two and three different places at one time.  It was kind of hairy at times.

At one school I was in the place that had been an office building.  There were two floors in the one spot and three floors in another area.  There were a lot of stairs and we had to carry a lot of wheel chairs up and down.

I can’t really think of a worst, worst day.  I remember one day that a little boy was choking terribly.  He was a drowning victim who was revived.  I was the only one with him.  He was an adult size and the Lord gave me the strength to yank him out of a wheel chair and throw him on a treating mat table and get his head down and pound on his back to clear his airway.  His head was down. He was rigid and that’s what helped me get him out of the chair.  He was choking over his own saliva.  I was able to clear his airway so he could breathe.

This child would become very anxious at times.  I always thought that somehow he knew that because of his body, he would not be able to get out of this disability.  The staff and everybody tried so hard to understand him.  The staff always remarked that if he was having a problem all I would have to do is walk in the room and he would relax.   It was like he knew that I could help him.

It got to the point that he would make certain signs with his hands and I learned to interpret these signs.  Like he would sign something and I could tell he was asking and needing his breathing treatment or that he was hurting in some way.  It became clear to all of us that he had learned to communicate just a little bit.  We were understanding him – especially in his eyes.  He would roll his eyes and respond.

They always tell you not to get too close to your patients or clients.  One young lady got to me – really bad.  She and I had a bond.  I also had a bond with her mother.  There were some very trying times.  This young lady left the school and graduated.  She died a few weeks afterwards.  That was one of the hardest things I ever had to deal with.  This was one of my worst days.  Being at the hospital with her in the end was really hard.  I was with her a couple of days before she passed away.

She was one of these kids that had nine lives.  There were so many times that we thought she wasn’t going to make it, but she would always pull out and live.  We thought she would pull through this time.  It was very hard because I knew I had become too close to the family.  It was very, very hard.

This mother was a single parent with a special needs child.  She also had another child.  She decided to go back to school to become a nurse.  She was being criticized.  There were times when she was thinking of dropping out.  I would encourage her not to drop out and that I could help with the special needs child.  When this child died I realized that she was one of the kids who was very unique and amazing and losing her was one of my worst days.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

You just do it.  It is your job.  How could you not keep going?  It has to be something in you.  You have to love what you’re doing or you can’t do it.  If you don’t like – it’s not like – if you don’t love what you are doing, you cannot do the job at all.

That’s why there is a problem right now in the public schools.  There are a lot of special needs children in the public schools.  There might be a child in the classroom that has grand mal seizures.  This scares a lot of teachers because they can’t get people to come in and help.  They might even be terrified of one of their students having a seizure and as a teacher having to deal with it.  So you have to love what you are doing in order to do it.

I think that is true of anything one does as a nurse — period.  No matter what kind of nursing you are doing.  You have to love what you are doing.  That’s why there are a lot of nurses out there that are not working.  It’s hard work and you have to be dedicated.  If you aren’t and if you don’t love it, you can’t do it.  You can’t do it well and you won’t last.  If you aren’t happy in doing it, then everyone around you is not happy.

I do love nursing, but I don’t know why.  What I have found is that most of the employees I’ve worked with and who love their job, have had either a next door neighbor or a sibling or a relative – somebody in their life, somewhere in their history — someone who has touched them and had a disability.  Maybe not as severe as the people with which I’ve worked, but they have been touched in some way with a disability in their life.  Those are the ones who stay as employees.

The ones who come in without experience and they are hired and think they can do it, may last a month and that is it.  Some people only last a day.  The joke is that they say they have to go to the bathroom but don’t ever come back.  We’ve actually had that happen.  They might go to lunch and not come back.

The administration will even have them sit in for a day and in a classroom for which they might be hired.  The idea is for them to observe and see if this will help them realize what the possibility is for the patients they will be working with.  It has helped some, but for others, they won’t come back to work in this field.  Others will come until their first paycheck and then they are gone.  They leave because they just can’t deal with the relationships.

I used to laugh.  I had one pocket with Kleenex  just for me and another pocket of Kleenexes just to wipe children’s snotty noses as I was walking down the hall.  Not all people can deal with that.  I can.  I don’t know why.  I can’t explain why.  I just took to nursing and loved it.  I do.  I don’t consider me special.  I just saw a need and I filled it.