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School nurse more than 'boo-boo queen'

Position in high school requires helping kids become adults

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Senior Editor

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Laura Steere poses with her ribbon-winning Percheron draft horse, Beamer.

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BALDWINSVILLE, New York (MedPage Today) -- A few years ago Laura Steere, R.N., nearly died while riding a frisky pinto gelding.

What did she do after recovering from a fractured skull? She climbed back on a horse, but this time "it was a much bigger horse," a Percheron draft horse.

As she matter-of-factly discusses her accident on her farm, the listener gets the sense that this is a woman who thrives on challenge. That resilience comes in handy as school nurse at the 800-student Phoenix High School.

For those who recall school nurses as women in white who bandaged scraped knees and checked for head lice, Steere is all that and more.

Steere said school nurses in elementary schools are perceived as "the boo-boo queen." In reality, she said, they oversee the health and welfare of several hundred children.

As the school nurse at a high school, "you are dealing with teens that are in the transition from childhood to adulthood and you have to be there to help in that transition. So, while a mosquito bite can bring a student to my office, I also get the students who have been 'cutting' or experimenting with drugs or teens who are sexually active."

She is part of a team -- the guidance counselors, school psychologists and nurse -- who work to provide supportive services.

One way that Steere helps with supportive services is her work with CHAT Club, which stands for Caring Hearts Are Together, a group she founded when she joined the Phoenix faculty six years ago.

CHAT is not all talk

The idea, she says, is to teach teens that "working together and supporting each other and the community" can help them learn skills that will help them cope with their own problems. Members perform community service, such as serving meals at a local homeless shelter and visiting nursing homes to entertain residents or help with activities.

Last year, the club's 18 members performed more than 400 hours of community service, Steere said. This year "close to 50 kids have already signed up."

In addition to service projects, the group regularly hears guest speakers discuss perennial hot topics among teens: sex, drugs, and drinking.

Steere's interest in teenage substance abuse led her to earn her certificate as a certified prevention professional. Armed with that, she decided to organize a prevention program for parents. The one-evening seminar was designed to provide information to parents of middle school and high school students, and Steere told school officials that she expected maybe 50 to 100 parents to attend.

"It was amazing," Steere said with a laugh. "We had people lined up outside waiting to get in." More than 500 parents attended the program and "the only complaint that we had was that we ran out of material to hand out."

In addition to the CHAT Club and drug education programs run out of the school nurse's office, Steere is also coaching a team for the New York State Special Olympics.

And in her spare time, she raises and shows three Percheron horses, the really big horse she substituted for the frisky pinto. She's the secretary-treasurer of the local Percheron Association, and she also raises parrots at her small farm, which is also home to "a goat, one dog and five cats."

Nursing as a second career

All in all it is a full and challenging life for a woman who started out with a degree in restaurant management.

She decided to switch careers when she divorced, making her a single mom with three children.

"I knew that I needed a career with more stability than I could get in restaurant management, so I decided to try nursing," she said. She received an associate's degree in nursing and found a job working at a state hospital.

"I started on the medical-surgical floor and then transferred to the psychiatric floor because I really liked the psycho-social aspects of nursing," she said.

But after a few years, she had remarried and she decided that working nights, weekends and holidays didn't leave enough time for family.

"That was 12 years ago and I decided then to try school nursing," she said. Her first assignment was at a middle school and she says the first year was very difficult.

"I went from working in an environment where there was lots of structure -- I had many doctors and nurses for support -- to a situation that was pretty unstructured where I was the only medical person in the building," she said. Initially, she had to simply get comfortable with her triage role.

She worked at the middle school for six years and while she enjoyed her work there, "I was ready to move up to the high school."

The perfect fit

At the high school, she says, "it's a perfect fit," an assessment that she says is regularly affirmed by the students. "We have two CHAT Club kids who have decided to go into nursing, and I know I influenced that decision," she says.

A more dramatic example came from a former student who sought her out at a community gathering.

"This girl became pregnant and dropped out of school. But she told me that she went back and got her G.E.D. and now she is starting college," Steere said. "She told me one of the reasons she went back to school was that I had always supported her, always believed in her."

As she prepares for another day, feeding her animals at 5:30 a.m. before heading into school, she sums up her job this way: "When I first started a school nurse, I was overwhelmed -- there was just too much to do, too many problems, too many sad stories. Now, I know that I can't fix everything, but I can make my little corner of the world more beautiful."

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