School nurse Patricia O'Connor in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's Bower Elementary School treats her share of bumps, bruises, tummy aches and scraped knees.
But "Nurse Pat," as the children call her, does so much more. Working in a school that has six self-contained classrooms of special-needs students, O'Connor has an emergency plan in place for each student with special needs ranging from autism to allergies to seizure disorders.
She makes sure their bus drivers know what to do in an emergency, confers with their physicians over problems with medication, calms students' fears over medical tests they must take and has been known to visit them in the hospital.
The Wheaton resident serves on District 200's safety committee with police and fire personnel who service the district, belongs to two pediatric emergency planning committees on the state level and teaches an emergency care course for school nurses in Illinois.
O'Connor's dedication and professionalism recently were recognized by the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois Emergency Medical Services for Children with the Ron W. Lee MD Excellence in Pediatric Care Award. One of three recipients of the award, she received it in the category of clinical excellence.
"She goes the extra mile," said Kris Fontanarosa, co-chairman of District 200's health services committee and one of those who nominated O'Connor for the award.
"She's very committed, methodical, smart and doesn't stop until she gets what she needs for the kids."
Fontanarosa recalled that when one special-needs child was found to be diabetic, O'Connor worked with the school's food service to be sure the student had the needed diet and formed a committee to address other students' diet needs as well.
"Pat (is) the bridge to the student, the school and the hospital," Fontanarosa said. "She's a very smart nurse and very resourceful."
A registered nurse for 37 years and a certified school nurse for the past 21 years, O'Connor said there's much more to school nursing than there used to be.
"The needs of the kids are a lot more. They're just very complex now. Medical needs, even their social and emotional needs," she said. "You never know what you're going to get."
Megan Puglise, now a 9-year-old Bower student with Down syndrome and cardiac problems, was too terrified of medical personnel to want to go near the nurse's office when she first met O'Connor, said Megan's mother, Lori Puglise of Wheaton. O'Connor, who does not wear a nurse's uniform, gradually won Megan's trust and led her to be a helper in her office.
Last school year, knowing how anxious Megan was about an upcoming EKG, O'Connor made up a book about the procedure and took equipment into Megan's classroom to do a fake EKG on a doll so students would see that it didn't hurt. When it came time for Megan's appointment, she calmly cooperated as she had never done before.
"It was just tremendous," Puglise said. "It's almost impossible to get her to stay still."
O'Connor said to make a difference for someone like Megan is one of the satisfactions of being a school nurse.
"That's so cool, when you can help somebody," she said.
O'Connor said she doesn't think her dedication as a school nurse is unusual, and points out that she works as a team that includes other nurses, a speech therapist and social worker. But she acknowledged she's willing to get into people's faces to look out for the students under her charge.
"I try to be diplomatic and professional, but if I feel something is not being done that needs to be done, I'll definitely keep pursuing it. I kind of don't give up," she said.
A CPR instructor in District 200, O'Connor also serves on the Illinois Terrorism Task Force Pediatric Preparedness Workgroup and the Statewide Pediatric Disaster Surge Plan Committee. The committees develop protocols for how to deal with children in emergency situations.
"It could be anything from an earthquake to terrorism," O'Connor said.
Sheila Grogan, program nurse for multi-needs in the School Association for Special Education in DuPage, nominated O'Connor for the award after serving with her on state committees and taking O'Connor's school nurse emergency care class. With O'Connor's encouragement, Grogan now teaches the class herself.
"She's a wealth of knowledge," Grogan said. "She's a lifelong learner."
Contact with kids
O'Connor didn't set out to be a school nurse after earning her R.N. degree. She worked at Loyola University Medical Center in neurology for three years before leaving to have her two sons. She returned to work as a home health care nurse, then left nursing for a while to work at a Montessori school.
"That's when I knew I really like working with kids," she said.
O'Connor served in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 89 for nine years but left when downsizing among the nursing staff would have put her in an administrative position. Twelve years ago, she joined District 200. She has worked in Bower School since then, and also worked in other district schools for seven of those years.
"I like the contact with the kids," she said. "That's why I came here, so I could keep working with kids."
O'Connor works with a health aide who spends half a day at the school and a registered nurse who sometimes comes in during the week. This school year, other nurses have come to Bower to help because O'Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer on the second day of the school year. While she was in chemotherapy, she had limited contact with the kids because of her weakened immune system.
"When you have your own health struggles, you do learn a lot of things," she said. "It was really hard for me to give up that control."
But O'Connor also learned how much support she had among the school's staff and students. As she had made Megan a book, the kids made her a book.
"On the day I had the surgery, everybody dressed in pink," she said. "That was very sweet."
Colleagues also showed their support for her by nominating her for the award. O'Connor said she had been nominated last year as well, but this year more people sent letters in support.
"This was such a great thing for such a crummy year. It was a surprise," she said.
Still in treatment but with a recovered immune system, O'Connor is back to interacting with the kids. She accompanied them on a recent end-of-the-year trip to Brookfield Zoo, taking her own car just in case a child would need to be transported to the hospital.
She often fields health questions from parents and staff, and said her main frustration is trying to get everything done. On a typical day, about 30 kids visit the nurse's office with complaints ranging from serious to nothing that needs medical attention.
"You have to be kind of a generalist. You have to know a little bit about a lot of things," she said. "It's a very busy job. I'm not bored ever."
O'Connor plans to spend the summer teaching the emergency care class for school nurses, taking continuing education classes herself, gardening and finding some time to relax with Kevin, her husband of 37 years. Then she plans to be back to school early before the new school year starts, preparing for the students who come through the doors.
"It's a very rewarding occupation. You look at the whole child, help make decisions about their education," she said. "Another thing that's really rewarding is watching the kids grow."