For Cherry Creek school nurses, ounces of prevention prove crucial

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AURORA | If your image of a school nurse’s office is a cot, a desk and a friendly nurse who can dole out ice packs and little else, you probably haven’t been in one for a while.

With school nurses tackling more-serious illness everyday — including growing numbers of students with diabetes and asthma — nurses offices are packed with crucial medications and plenty more than just ice packs.

At Mountain Vista Elementary School in southeast Aurora, Deborah Ellis’ well-organized office is home not just to stethoscopes, bright orange cots and tongue depressors, but prescription medications organized neatly for students who need them.

Ellis’ office isn’t just the place students come running to after some playground mishap, but the place students with serious medical issues go a few times throughout the day to get the medication they need to make it through the day, be it insulin or their inhalers.

In CCSD — one of the few districts in the state with a nurse in every school — nurses are focusing more on preventing medical issues as opposed to reacting when students are already in the midst of a health troubles.

With school nurses tackling more-serious illness everyday — including growing numbers of students with diabetes and asthma — nurses offices are packed with crucial medications and plenty more than just ice packs.

Suzanne Oro, CCSD Director of Health Services, said that sort of “upstream” focus — catching problems early before they become bigger issues — is part of a broader trend in health care and one that can be especially helpful in schools.

“Health care is moving into the community,” she said. “Historically, health care has been very acute-care centered, but that is not a very cost-effective system.”

That sort of reactionary system is being replaced by one aimed at prevention, she said, and school nurses — who have a specific population they see each day — are in an ideal spot to assist in that larger system.

Last month, five CCSD nurses were selected as 2015 Fellows for the Rutgers University/Johnson & Johnson School Health Leadership Program. The program, which included 60 nurses from around the country, touched on school and community health techniques and asked nurses to choose a particular ailment and craft a plan to address it. The CCSD team chose asthma, an issue Oro said is a serious problem and leads to missed classes for afflicted students.

Oro said CCSD has more than 5,200 students with asthma and last school year, those students visited a nurse’s office more than 18,000 times because of asthma and respiratory issues. The asthmatic students in CCSD could fill more than 100 school buses, she said.

In CCSD — one of the few districts in the state with a nurse in every school — nurses are focusing more on preventing medical issues as opposed to reacting when students are already in the midst of a health troubles.

Oro said the group is in the early stages of their program so they aren’t sure what it will look like yet, but they plan to meet with officials from the state and other districts to craft a plan that can help students avoid asthma attacks instead of just responding with an inhaler when a student has an attack.

“Not just a response or a rescue med, but what can we do to really help these kids,” she said.

With about one nurse for every 691 students — compared to the state average of one for every 2,000 — Oro said the district is well-positioned to tackle those sorts of issues.

Often, Oro said, in impoverished communities where students lack access to health care, the school nurse is the only consistent health care provider they see.

“We know that when we can address health needs of students in the school setting, and provide that continuity of care between home and school, our kids stay in school and they attend to their instruction,” she said.