The reality of school health emergencies
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.