School Nurses – Service with a Heart

You might think there’s a big difference between being a cardiac nurse in a hospital and being a school nurse at an elementary school. But not for Erica Ward, who spent eight years as a cardiac and a medical-surgical nurse before coming to Specht Elementary six years ago. In the end, both require you to know your way around the human body, big or small. But, more importantly, you’ve got to know how to serve your patient with care and compassion, whether they are a cardiac patient or an anxious kid.

It's School Nurses' Week and this Wednesday, May 12, is School Nurse Day. See how Erica handles the daily challenges of being a school nurse and serves as a great example of the hard work the nurses in Comal ISD do every day. The district has 30 nurses on campuses, four licensed vocational nurses, three COVID case managers, and two who work in Support Services.

Erica, how long have you been a nurse? How did you get to Specht Elementary?

I have been a nurse for almost 14 years. I was previously a cardiac and medical-surgical nurse. My youngest was going into kindergarten and the nurse here was leaving. I found out the position was available. Working with kids in a school was something I always had wanted to do. It just happened to be the perfect time.

How did you adapt to life as a school nurse after working in a cardiac or surgical unit in a hospital?

In a hospital, it’s a lot more fast paced and there are a lot more emergencies. But in reality, it’s the same anatomy for adults and kids. Kids they are just a little smaller. Here, there is more of a nurturing aspect on top of the medical aspect. You have to be a caring, comforting person for these kids.

What has been your biggest challenge as a school nurse? Was it the pandemic?

Honestly, it wasn’t the pandemic. It was the displacement after the flood (Specht Elementary sustained significant water damage to offices and classrooms after pipes burst during the February snowstorm). Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges that come with the pandemic and all of the precautionary things we do. Ironically, nurses were put in schools to prevent communicable diseases from spreading in school.

I would say the biggest challenge was the flood and trying to navigate where we were going to be and where the kids were going to be. Was I going to have a makeshift office, if I was even going to have an office? It was eye opening. There was a whole section of the school affected and everything that you knew was flipped. You had to figure out where your stuff was and if it was damaged.

Yes, there was a challenge with the pandemic. You have to differentiate if something is COVID or allergies or flu symptoms. Is a symptom a true symptom of COVID or something they’ve had all along like allergies. A lot of these kids I’ve known for a while. If one comes in in March with red, itchy eyes, a runny nose and a cough, more than likely it’s an allergy.

When did you know you wanted to be a nurse?

When I was 16, I had a big life challenge – I had my first son, Chandler. That’s what made me want to be a nurse – specifically a school nurse. I’ll never forget the nurse I had when I was 16. She was so kind and I remember how she treated me.

Your path to becoming a school nurse, as a medical-surgical and cardiac nurse, had to be pretty challenging?

I wanted to get the basics of nursing. I didn’t feel I could give myself completely and fairly to a school without having hospital experience first. I started out on a medical-surgical floor, then cardiac drew my attention. The heart is a big, major organ in your body. If that doesn’t work, nothing else matters!

What does a typical day include for you at Specht as a nurse?

It varies day to day. There are medications that need to be taken first thing in the morning and throughout the day. In between, I check immunizations. There are kids that come in for asthma, fever, a stomach ache, or a broken arm. And there’s paperwork for a lot of it.

What was a true test for you as a school nurse?

There are two that stand out to me. The first one was someone who was having breathing problems. It ended up being related to a motor vehicle accident that had happened a few days before. I had to put all the pieces together and I listened to their lungs. EMS had to come.

Another student had an allergic reaction to an insect and they were not aware that they were allergic to that insect. EMS had to come for that one as well. Those were both in my first year.

After being a cardiac nurse, situations like those are probably easy for you, right?

I will say that I’ve been complimented for remaining calm in certain situations where other people might get a little more excited. If you’re calm, the kid is going to remain calm. If you’re freaking out and excited, the kids will feed off of your emotion. You have to put yourself in their shoes. They’re scared. They’re human. They have feelings. They need that understanding.

Adults will tell you – it hurts here, here and here. With kids, you really have to pull it out of them and pick up on different clues.

Caring is something that doesn’t change. It stays constant whether you are a cardiac patient or a kid. If that’s your family member laying in that hospital bed or your child sitting in that chair, you want someone to treat them with kindness and respect. That’s universal.

Being a school nurse, what gives you the most pride?

I think the biggest thing for me is that parents trust me with their most-prized possession. I get to do this every day. This is a dream come true. I get to wake up every day and go to work.