Health Matters: The school nurse is in; she will see you next

Mary Underhill greets students from Riverview Elementary when they walked to the hospital to celebrate Nurses Week. (Courtesy photo)
Mary Underhill greets students from Riverview Elementary when they walked to the hospital to celebrate Nurses Week. (Courtesy photo)

By Mary Kay VanDriel, R. N.

We recently received a heartwarming visit to our Big Rapids hospital from kindergarten students at Riverview Elementary. They walked over from next door to honor our nurses during Nurses Week.

Seeing the kids and nurses together brought to mind the important role of our area’s school nurse, Mary Underhill, RN, and the fact that her role is all too rare in our schools these days.

While we’re fortunate to have Mary helping our school kids in Big Rapids and Reed City, many of Michigan’s schools do not have a school nurse. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, Michigan ranked last among states in the ratio of school nurses to students.

Through a partnership with Spectrum Health, Big Rapids and Reed City area public schools benefit from having Mary provide health services. I asked Mary to give us all some insight into her work keeping our area students healthy. Here’s how she describes her vital role:

“I’m fortunate to be able to provide care across both districts and their many buildings with the support of technology. Each building has a computer and webcam connected, so a school employee can reach out to me online. This video conference allows me, as the school nurse, to assess and discuss a student’s health when I’m not actually in the building.

“When people think of school nurses, they think of tending to bumps, bruises and scraped knees. The current reality is students have greater healthcare needs than in past generations."

Mary noted today’s students face more medically complex conditions and chronic health illnesses, including asthma, diabetes, food allergies, obesity, and mental health and behavioral issues.

“These complex medical issues require the nurse’s knowledge, assessment skills, and judgement to support parents in the management of these conditions," she said. "Managing student health requires coordination with families, school staff, and a range of healthcare providers. My focus is to promote wellness, disease prevention and early intervention to head off more serious complications. These intervention services are geared to reduce barriers to learning.

“We know it to be true that when students have health issues their ability to learn can be affected. So I work with all the relevant people to advocate for student health and safety. This includes safe medication storage and administration, evidence-based ‘too-sick-for school’ guidelines, CPR training for staff and students, medical emergency response team training, emergency care protocols and, yes, caring for those all-too-common scraped knees.

“Some students may never interact with the nurse, but for others the nurse may be their only access to the health care they need. I’m proud that my hospitals and our local schools recognize the need for this kind of front-line medical care for our kids.”

With a superstar like Mary at work in our schools, it’s no surprise the Riverview kids brought a sign with them that said, “Nurses have super powers!” They listed “caring, kind, gentle” and many other attributes our nurses have in abundance.

With a role model like Mary, it’s little wonder that the kids have such a positive impression of the important role of nurses in our community ... and our schools.