Healers in the Hallway

Meet three nurses at Chatham County Schools

By Holly West  |  Photography by Briana Brough

With 18 schools to serve, the seven nurses of Chatham County Schools are always on the move. Each person is tasked with taking care of hundreds of students, providing care that ranges from administering daily medicines to handling seizures to being a shoulder to cry on. We sat down with three of these healers, Dawn Rains at the elementary school level, Melissa Lassen at the high school level and Denise Jones at the middle school level.

Daily Demands

Dawn Rains loves little people. The veteran nurse switched from hospitals to school hallways four years ago to spend more time with her own children. Now, she is surrounded by hundreds of K-8 kids a day. “The kids come up with the funniest things,” Dawn says. “Kids are brutally honest. They’ll tell you just what’s on their mind.”

Dawn splits her time between Silk Hope School, North Chatham Elementary School and Pittsboro Elementary School. Her daughter, seventh-grader Ashlee, attends Silk Hope and her son, Rilee, is a ninth-grader at Jordan-Matthews High School.

Her daily schedule depends on the needs of each of her schools on a given day. “You have to prioritize and go to what school has needs,” she says. “We do get pulled a lot from one school to another, so you have to keep flexible.”

Between the three schools, Dawn tends to the needs of about 1,300 kids. A large part of her job includes administering medicine or checking on kids who have chronic conditions and allergies – a list that gets longer each year. “I would definitely say there’s more diabetes,” she says. “You’re seeing more kids with health concerns at every school, whether it be newly diagnosed asthma, a food allergy, etc. You’re seeing lots of kids with medicines they bring to school every day, like EpiPens.”

She also sees children who get sick or injured at school and says a lot more goes into that kind of care than people think. “That is part of our role, to assess a child when they’re hurt, but there’s also the referral part, the case management part, the follow-up part, knowing when to send a child home or when they need to go to the doctor,” she said. “It’s that nursing judgment.”

Judgment is especially important for school nurses, who are often the only trained health care professional in a school building on a given day. Restrictions on the kind of care school nurses can give also adds to the job’s difficulty.

“In a hospital, you have… doctors, you have other nurses, you have the medicine, you have everything you could possibly think of you could need,” she says. “Whereas, in a school we’re very limited as to what we can provide to the students. We can’t give a medicine to a child without a doctor’s order and a parent signature.”

Despite the challenges, Dawn says she loves her job. When she’s not working, she’s busy with her own two kids. Rilee plays several sports and Ashlee is a cheerleader and involved in theater. “My children keep me pretty busy,” she says.

In Sync with Students

On a Friday morning in October, Melissa Lassen had treated a busted lip, met with two parents whose children were newly diagnosed with medical conditions and talked with another parent about a student’s treatment plan. And it was just 10 a.m.

In her 11 years as a school nurse, Melissa has worked at nine different schools in Chatham County. She now works at Northwood High School and is the head nurse for Chatham County Schools, a role in which she supervises the district’s six other nurses and is responsible for state-mandated reports and other district-level tasks.

She says the ability to prioritize where she’s needed most is a key skill in getting everything done. “That’s challenging, trying to fit it all in,” she says. “For me,
that means coming to work early. I’m always here by 7, but some mornings I’m here at 6:30.”

She says the day-to-day interactions she has with students are the best part of her job. Unlike younger kids, adolescents are often in need of more than a Band-Aid. “They just need someone that they can talk to that they trust and can confide in,” she says. “Especially for high school students, that’s a big part of what we do.”

As much as she loves it now, Melissa didn’t always want to be a school nurse. The daughter of an educator, she decided to forge a different path. For 12 years, she worked as a labor and delivery nurse in hospitals. Then she felt drawn back to school hallways. “It seemed like I had a calling to be in a school,” she says. Working as a school nurse allowed her to spend more time with her daughter, Emma, now a junior at UNC.

Like many people, she didn’t realize the scope of the job. Among the surprising tasks is training teachers to deal with health issues for when she’s not around. “They’re the one in the classroom with that student,” she says. “They need to know what to look for, how to handle an emergency. That can look different for different health problems.”

While Melissa lives in Apex, she considers Chatham County a second home after all these years. “I’ve never worked in another county, but I certainly think we have a great county,” she says.

Homegrown Helper

For Denise Jones, the annual countywide vision screenings she helps conduct are like a trip back in time. “I’ve had multiple incidents where I see a child and, before I know their name, I’m like, ‘Who’s your mama?’” she says. “I know their mom and their dad just from looking at them.”

Denise graduated from Jordan-Matthews High School, as did her two sons, Noah and Caleb. Daughter Hannah is a junior there now. Seventh-grader Lillian and fifth-grader Lauren, both students at Silk Hope, will be at the school one day, too.

Denise and her husband, Jason, live in the country outside Siler City, not too far from where she grew up. After high school, she went away to college at UNC-Greensboro, but she knew she would return to her hometown. “You get a lot of satisfaction from going off to college and being able to come back here,” she says.

For nearly two decades, she worked in emergency nursing at hospitals. While she enjoyed helping people, especially kids, in that line of work, she says it took a toll on her. “It was a lot of heartache,” she says. “It got to the point where when kids were sick and families were upset, after doing that for 16 years, I realized it was time for a change.”

Eight years ago, she decided to switch to school nursing. She worked for one year in Alamance County before returning to Chatham. Now, she splits her time between Chatham Middle School, Horton Middle School and Moncure School. While she still has to deal with a scary situation every now and then, she says she hasn’t had to face anything life-threatening.

“The aspect of taking care of well children and trying to work on prevention and teaching them how to keep themselves well or keep themselves from getting injured was a nice change,” she says. “To see smiling faces and kids that are happy.”

Denise’s job as a school nurse comes with its own challenges, however. With 1,300 kids to take care of, she’s always calling to check on students at one school while physically at another. She says she feels bad when something major happens at one of her schools and she can’t be there to help.

“Today I came in and I found out that a staff member at one of my schools maybe had a stroke yesterday and I wasn’t there,” she said in early November. “I was like, ‘Gosh, what if I could have been there.’ I hear that a lot, ‘[Such and such] happened yesterday and I wish you were here.’”

Most parents don’t seem to know that school nurses are stretched between multiple schools, Denise says, but she wishes they did. When she does explain her schedule to upset parents, she says they’re almost always understanding. That’s just one of many things she loves about working with the people of Chatham County, and why her hometown is so special to her. “It’s good to give back to your community and stay local if you can.”  CM

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