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School nurses' jobs are often misunderstood

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School nurses' jobs are often misunderstood

Reidland Elementary School nurse Pauline Benzing is one of several nurses in schools around the county and throughout western Kentucky, but several people don’t fully understand what goes into being a school nurse.

There are a number of jobs that may be considered “thankless.” That may be too harsh a word, but they are jobs that often get overlooked or that people know little about what those workers do until they are needed.

One of those behind-the-scenes jobs that has risen in importance during the COVID-19 pandemic is that of school nurse.

Most of the schools in this area have their own. School nurses in the Paducah Independent School District are employees of Baptist Healthcare, while other schools hire people who studied nursing or were nurses in other places.

One of those nurses is Pauline Benzing, the school nurse at Reidland Elementary School. Benzing has been the full-time nurse at RES for three years, having substituted in that office for five years before being hired as the full-time nurse. She said she has worked as a school nurse for about 20 years.

“I think that sometimes, people don’t understand what the role of the school nurse is,” she said. “They think, sometimes, it’s just Band-Aids and ice packs and peppermints, and that’s not at all what it is. ... I want people to know that we really do more than just sit here and pass out Band-Aids and ice packs. We have a great responsibility that falls on us.”

“We’re responsible for the upkeep of all of the immunization records, physical, dental, vision — we’re responsible for getting all of those in — communicating with the doctor’s offices. We’re responsible for keeping all of the medications locked up and safe for the kids and all of the documentation that is required for that.”

A big part of being a school nurse is having a widespread knowledge for many different medical situations.

“School nursing is just an extension of public health, so anything that has gone on — even during the pandemic — is just an extension of something we already do. It just happened on a larger scale,” Benzing said.

School nurses are flexible in their roles. They are more than just the person students go to see when they are sick.

“We can teach health classes whenever we are asked to, whether it’s something like hand-washing or brushing their teeth for dental hygiene or even breast self-exams for the high school students,” Benzing said.

“Also, the screenings that we do: We do vision, we do hearing and we see if there is a problem and refer those children on, too.”

Benzing said the COVID-19 pandemic magnified what she was already teaching and recommending to students to do, only on a larger scale. Hand-washing and other tasks that prevent other diseases were magnified during the pandemic.

“When we actually came back to school with the masks and the spacing — I’m not going to say that it’s new, but it was just bigger than before,” she said. “That was really crazy, especially at the first part of this year because we were involved with the quarantining. It was busy; it was very busy.”

Benzing said school nurses at different levels of school — elementary, intermediate, middle and high schools — see different illnesses and health issues.

“At the elementary level, you’re going to see a lot of playground accidents,” she said. “You’ll see a lot of falls, a lot of kids just needing a little bit of TLC (tender loving care), but there are very severe kids here.

“It’s not uncommon to see children on feeding tubes at the grade-school level. It’s where it begins because we have so many special-needs students who are coming into the school district and being mainstreamed into the schools. You’ll see feeding tubes, you’ll see tracheostomies, you’ll see children with ventilators, you’ll see children who need to be catheterized. These kinds of things will go all the way through school.”

Benzing said as students get older, nurses deal more with social issues, and behavioral health issues are more prominent in older students.

Before working as a school nurse, Benzing worked in critical care upon graduation from nursing school at Missouri Western State University. After that she worked with obstetrics, then went into nursing “because it was more conducive to a family life.”

“I wanted to be with my boys when they were growing up,” she said.

Benzing said there is a difference between being a school nurse and being a hospital nurse.

“There in the hospital, when you go onto the floor, typically, you know what you have for the day,” she said. “Every day when you walk in here, the day comes to you. You have your daily routine things that you take care of, but you never know what’s going to walk in the door.”

Benzing said she feels that being a school nurse is not a thankless job, but often misunderstood.

“We do play a very vital role in education of the children when they’re here,” she said. “We are heavily involved when special-needs kids are getting their IEPs (individual educational plan). These are written up for the children who have special needs.

“Typically, they will have some type of medical issue that falls into that, so that has to be built into that plan for them. The same thing with what they call 504 plans. These kids have medical issues that need to be met so they can be successful at school.”

School nurses provide that information for those plans as well as give different strategies regarding medication — the type and how often it is to be taken — or any type of procedure that takes them out of the classroom.

“For instance, when kids have to test their blood-sugars,” she said. “That takes them out of the classroom. If children have to have a catheterization done, that takes them out of the classroom.

“So, we try to minimize that, work with the teachers to help them meet their educational needs as well as their medical needs — their health issues.”

Benzing said part of what she enjoys about her job is that it is always changing.

“Every day can be a surprise as to what comes in,” she said. “I enjoy very much being with the kids. If you ever want to find a place where you feel loved, you just walk down the hallway and the kids will see you. They’ll say your name, and they’ll come up, and they’ll want to hug you.

“It’s very endearing, and it makes you want to come to work. It’s the kids; that’s why we’re here.”

Follow David B. Snow on Twitter, @SunWithSnow, or on Facebook at facebook.com/sunwithsnow.

Follow David B. Snow on Twitter, @SunWithSnow, or on Facebook at facebook.com/sunwithsnow.

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