When Karen Searson heads to work on Daniel Island, she never knows what the day will bring. But she has to be prepared for it all.
Searson is the school nurse at Bishop England High School – and the only person on campus tasked with overseeing the health of students, faculty and staff on a daily basis. It is a critical position, not only in today’s COVID environment, but because her role has an unmistakable impact on a student’s well-being and academic achievement. In fact, according to the National Association of School Nursing, a student’s health is directly linked to his or her ability to learn. Searson doesn’t take the significance of her post lightly.
“As a school nurse, we have to understand the physical, the emotional, the mental and the social needs of these children,” said Searson, who sat down with The Daniel Island News on the students’ first day back to campus last week, after the holiday break. “So, we, along with the teachers, are almost at the frontlines when it comes to ensuring the success and the quality of life for these students. Because we are faced with them every day.”
And being ready for any health scenario, from the simple to the complex, is part of the job.
“Nurses are first responders to the school's campus,” Searson said. “There is nobody else. You are it. And you never know what situation you're going to be put into. And what resources you might need that you don't have. That's the scary part.”
But Searson is well trained and well prepared. In addition to her job at BE, she is also a surgical ICU nurse for Roper Hospital, working in the critical care unit every other weekend. She is now in her 22nd year at the hospital.
Searson began her journey into the medical field some three decades ago, after graduating from Bishop England High School. Initially, she hoped to pursue a career as a pediatrician. But after meeting and marrying her husband, Chip Searson, a police officer, she reconsidered that path, cognizant of the toll the intensive training may take on a young family. Searson’s mother and godmother suggested nursing might be a good alternative. She would go on to earn degrees from the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing.
During her early career, she also maintained her ties to her beloved Bishop England, where she began serving as a basketball coach – a role she continues to hold today. Four years ago, after BE’s school nurse of 28 years retired, Searson jumped at the opportunity to join the school staff in the full-time role.
“I don’t know that I was really driven to school nursing as I was just driven to the passion of being affiliated with Bishop England,” Searson said. “Because nursing is nursing, no matter where you go. And that’s the beauty of nursing. You can specialize in so many different areas. If you get burned out in one area, you’ve got so many other options – which is amazing.”
And it is clear this mother of four has a heart for the students she serves.
“You develop a rapport with these kids, you really do,” Searson said. “I think the most fulfilling part of the job is seeing the way these kids excel and the feeling that I have maybe made a difference in their life in some way, shape or form.”
Searson not only works with students, but also parents and other health care providers to ensure that her patients get all the help they need. Her experience as an ICU nurse has proven to be invaluable.
“(It) has helped me really drive some diagnoses,” she said. “Helping (steer) parents in the right direction of where they should go.”
While many aspects of her position may be similar to that of her peers, Searson is quick to point out that there is no such thing as a typical day on the job.
“A typical day? I wish I could tell you it goes this way at this time or this time…but it’s just so random. A school nurse’s office essentially serves as an urgent (care) clinic staffed by one nurse without a provider.”
Many of Searson’s shifts begin with answering emails and phone calls, as well as ensuring that students’ daily medication needs are met. Their conditions, monitored closely by Searson, can range from something relatively minor, like attention deficit disorder, to the more serious, such as diabetes or potentially life-threatening allergies or seizures. Overall, some 13% of students nationwide suffer from a severe medical diagnosis, noted Searson.
“One of the main things that we do is obviously administer medications and watch for anything that might come up and we have to keep them on our radar,” she said. “…Gone are the days that all we do is give them a Band-Aid if they have a bump on the knee.”
Then there are the ailments that just come up randomly during the day – the stomach bugs, headaches, sore throats, accidental injuries, and more.
“You have to be ready at a minute's notice,” Searson added.
Particularly troubling, she noted, is the rise in anxiety and depression among teens today.
“Anxiety is huge. It is a huge condition that these kids are dealing with. I have never seen so much anxiety as I have in the last two years. It’s at a very high level ... and depression.”
Adding to the stress level is certainly what is known as the “COVID factor,” as students, faculty and staff all over the globe grapple with how to maintain good health during a pandemic. For Searson, the virus has wreaked havoc on her “typical” duties — creating new daily tasks, such as contact tracing, surveying students about possible symptoms, checking temperatures, ensuring mask compliance and social distancing, and enhanced cleaning.
When BE first returned to school under a hybrid system last fall (meaning half the student body reported each day, while the other half conducted classes virtually), things went well. They didn’t have any COVID cases initially. But that changed once all students came back later in the semester.
“Within four days we had four cases,” Searson said.
Now that classes are once again in session after the long holiday break, her diligent COVID prevention efforts have ramped back up.
“It’s very challenging,” she said.
But Searson is hopeful for the day things can begin to return to normal. In the meantime, she will continue to follow the N.U.R.S.E acronym she created for her role — by Nurturing, Understanding, Respecting, Supporting and Educating the students she serves.
“Those are the things that are important to me as a nurse.”