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Cohen: School nurse crisis puts kids at risk

By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

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Diabetic Katie Assael, 6, tells CNN's Elizabeth Cohen how she checks her blood sugar at school.

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Behind the Scenes
California
Chicago (Illinois)
Emergency Planning

WALNUT CREEK, California (CNN) -- A few months ago, I was interviewing a principal at a Chicago, Illinois, public elementary school, when from outside her office came the sounds of a child coughing.

The coughs became louder and deeper -- mixed with gasps for breath. We stopped the interview, and the principal opened the door.

I couldn't believe what I saw. A kindergartner was having an asthma attack.

The secretary looked furiously through file drawers for his nebulizer. The child looked awful, clearly having trouble breathing.

"Why don't you get the school nurse?" I asked. The principal looked at me like I was an idiot. "The what?" came the reply.

The school nurse is almost a thing of the past.

In the course of one generation, she's nearly become a relic.

Many parents remember the school nurse, but there's a good chance today's children don't have one.

And while the number of school nurses is decreasing, children with chronic illnesses such as severe food allergies and diabetes are on the rise.

In California, where we went to do a story, at any given time 70 percent of the students don't have a nurse right at their school, according to the California School Nurses Organization. Some districts have no registered nurses at all, the group says.

One California nurse, Kathy Gabe, spends her time driving between six schools, taking care of 5,000 students. Almost as horrifying as witnessing the asthmatic child in Chicago was watching Gabe train school secretaries what to do when a child goes into anaphylactic shock because of an allergic reaction.

The same employees who take attendance are the ones assigned to handle medical emergencies if the nurse isn't there. And since Gabe splits her time between six schools, there's a good chance she won't be available.

One of Gabe's students is Katie Assael, a 6-year-old with diabetes.

When the child's at school, she checks her own blood sugar and shows the results to her teacher.

If Katie's sugar is low, the teacher is authorized to give her food or a sugar tablet. But if her sugar's high, Katie needs an insulin shot, and no one at the school is legally permitted to give it to her.

That means if Gabe's not there (and she's at that school only a half day a week), Katie's mother, Melissa, must come in and give her child the shot.

Since time is of the essence when a diabetic child needs insulin, Melissa must remain within five minutes of the school at all times. What would happen if she had to take a job more than two miles away? What would happen if she got stuck in traffic?

It makes you appreciate your own school nurse, the one who was always there, who wasn't driving around all the time, who had a real office.

Thank you, Mrs. Rogers, wherever you are.

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