By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Addams Elementary School
It’s standing room only inside the Nurse’s Office, with more students streaming in. Despite a variety of ailments, students have the same expression of woe.
A boy with a Mohawk complains of feeling faint. A girl in kindergarten cries because she vomited in the bathroom. A girl whose foot was stomped on limps in dramatically. A girl arrives with a welt on her arm and says she isn’t sure if she was smacked by a tetherball — or stung by a bee.
“Triage time” at Addams Elementary School means that school nurse Debra Farnum is taking care of business like nobody’s business.
“Just lie down for a minute,” she tells the boy with the Mohawk, whose fever has spiked to match his hairdo. “Your mom will be here soon.”
“I know it’s scary to throw up, but you’re going to be okay,” Farnum tells the mortified young girl. “Let’s call your mom and change your clothes and take your temperature, okay?”
“The ice pack is your friend,” she says, dispensing packs to the girls with foot and arm injuries.
“Cough in your sleeve,” she tells everyone. “And wash your hands. Wash them good.”
It’s a typical day for Farnum, a school nurse for 15 years and a registered nurse for three decades. In between crises, she checks students’ immunization records, screens for vision problems and looks for head lice. She is also on the front lines of preventing the H1N1 virus from spreading among students.
“I have had cases of H1N1 reported to me,” she says. “We usually discover the diagnosis after the child has been home for a couple of days. At that point, they are usually recovering from the illness.”
Earlier that day, she sent home a youngster with scabies — again. His mother couldn’t take time off from work, so she sent the child to school, even though his condition is spreading.
“Kids come in that are sick because parents aren’t sure what to do,” she explains. “They don’t have insurance and don’t know where to take them, so they keep bringing them here, even if they have fevers and are throwing up. A lot of times we are the first line of defense.”
Farnum’s dedication earned her the title of 2009 School Nurse of the Year in Long Beach, where she currently splits her time between Addams Elementary and Stevenson Elementary schools. A member of the Teachers Association of Long Beach, she received the Pearl Award from the Beta Phi Sigma Sorority in 2004, the Golden Apple Award in 2006, and a Long Beach Unsung Hero Award in 2007 from the NAACP and the mayor of Long Beach. Throughout Farnum’s career she has been a fundraiser for many health-related organizations that benefit schools. She created an asthma project for the Long Beach Unified School District a decade ago, but the district can no longer afford to fund it, which is typical of California — a state with only one nurse for every 2,240 students and no nurses at all in approximately half of its school districts.
Her biggest challenge isn’t students; it is educating their parents about how to handle chronic but manageable illnesses like asthma or diabetes and avoiding trips to the ER.
“I love working with kids,” she says. “I love it when kids who couldn’t see suddenly have glasses and now they can. Or when a child who missed 20 days of school goes to missing zero days because you sat down and talked to his parents and explained how their child needs a steroid inhaler.
“It’s great to know you’ve made a difference in children’s physical health. When kids are healthy and stay in school, their academic health can thrive, too.”
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