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The reality of school health emergencies

By Eileen DiFranco on Jun 5, 2014 10:22 AM

Roxborough High School consists of two three-story buildings with long hallways connected by “bridges” at each level. My office, located on the corner of the end of one building, is a good three- to four-minute run to the end of the third floor of the adjoining building. My greatest fear as a nurse is that something will happen at the opposite end of the facility and I won’t get there in time to save someone’s life.

So I’ve met with my teachers and told them that if they are concerned about someone not breathing, they should call 911 before they call me.

In the event of a cardiac arrest, time is of the essence. A person who suffers a cardiac arrest has perhaps four or five minutes before death. What happens from the time a person codes until the paramedics arrive is crucial to the person’s survival.

The same month that the school nurses were laid off by the School District in 2011, Ann Smigel, the nurse at Jackson Elementary was at a parochial school when a child went into cardiac arrest. Smigel, a nurse with 15 years of experience in the emergency room, immediately administered CPR and saved the child’s life.
Calling 911 is only one step in the effort to save a child’s life. The other step should be to assemble and train a team that handles a life-threatening emergency in the critical minutes before paramedics arrive. At Jackson, two caring volunteers who happened to be in the building when little Sebastian coded provided that much-needed service, which, sadly, did not suffice.
The reality is that widespread cutbacks in ancillary staff, such as counselors, vice principals, social workers, as well as the nurses, have virtually ensured that no school in Philadelphia will have anything resembling a team that could be trained to deal with life-threatening emergencies. Survival apparently depends upon luck and the school nurse’s schedule. A first-aid flip chart in a classroom is no substitute for the eyes, ears, and training of a certified school nurse. Staff people have said to me on multiple occasions that if they could not contact me, they would call 911 rather than waste time with a flip chart. Thus all children remain at serious risk in our schools.
There is no confidence among the many dedicated people who work for the School District of Philadelphia that we have the things we need to provide our students with a safe, viable educational experience. There are simply not enough adults in our buildings. No child and -- as the sad death of a police officer at Washington High School proved -- no adult is safe in a School District building.
The only people who are held accountable for this sad state of affairs are the people who work daily in our redlined schools, doing their best with fewer and fewer resources. Mistakes are going to happen. More people will be injured or die. The nurses who protested outside of District headquarters two years ago predicted that this would happen.
Is there a specific number of deaths that will move the adults to act? Are three enough? Or do we need several more?

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (3)

Submitted by Lisa Haver on June 5, 2014 11:47 am
As Eileen Duffey said to the SRC last Thursday: the question is not whether one child could have been saved in one incident. The question is: how many lives do nurses save every day? When nurses are laid off, and spread thin as they are now, that number declines, and then we are reading about the children who could not be saved. . This is happening on Hite and Green's watch. It is not a "tragedy", as Helen said in her commentary here. It is the result of policy decided upon by those who are responsible for the safety of our children and the adults, who also have health emergencies. Green must demand that Corbett, who appointed him,reinstate the funding the Governor cut--all of it-- to our schools. Political considerations must be set aside. That is the only moral path to follow.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 5, 2014 12:33 pm
There was a a poster on the wall when I was at Furness. It said, "If you do not stand for something, then you stand for nothing." It is time to stand for our children. It is time to stop standing for those who wish to destroy our public schools and profit off of our children, and those who continually play their political money, power and ego games at the expense of children. The moral integrity of us all is squarely on the table -- including mine. Was it not Dr. Martin Luther King who said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Submitted by Vicki (not verified) on June 5, 2014 1:45 pm
I work for a company that offers free CPR training for schools ( We would be happy to offer the schools in your district this program. We train the teachers to be skill evaluators (instructors) and then give them the curriculum in order to train their students. I'd be happy to discuss the program further with you. Please feel free to call us at 616-723-8060.

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