School Nurse On Sniffly Front Lines Of Swine Flu

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One school nurse in Sacramento, Calif., is at the center of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic, dabbing the noses of sick kids and comforting panicked parents as they push for vaccine, information and support.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Anxiety levels are rising in school districts, as at least 114 children in the U.S. have died from the HIN1 swine flu virus. A frontline responder to the pandemic is a school nurse who's now juggling new responsibilities.

Capital Public Radio's Kelley Weiss spent the day with one busy nurse at the Eugene Padan Elementary School just west of Sacramento.

KELLEY WEISS: Today, veteran nurse Toni McCallum is dealing with a wheezing student.

Unidentified Child: We had to run the laps. And while I was running I had trouble breathing.

WEISS: He came into her office just after lunch. She picks up her stethoscope and listens to his lungs, like shes done with students hundreds of times before.

Ms. TONI MCCALLUM (Nurse, Eugene Padan Elementary School): So, running made it a lot worse for you today?

Unidentified Child: Yes.

Ms. MCCALLUM: All right. Lets take a deep breath.

WEISS: But during this flu pandemic she says her role as a school nurse is changing.

Ms. MCCALLUM: A lot of times folks have an image of us in an office putting on Band-Aids. I havent touched a Band-Aid in a couple of months.

WEISS: Instead, a big part of her job is dealing with the swine flu, monitoring kids for flu symptoms and telling parents how to spot them and when to keep their kids home. She isnt administering the vaccine, but she is hearing from anxious parents desperate to find where they can get it. The vaccine is still in short supply. In addition, she is working around the clock as a swine flu myth buster.

Ms. MCCALLUM: I get a lot of old wives tale questions, like if I set onions around my house, will that help? Theres a lot of talk right now about using neti pots and gargling with salt water and will that suffice rather than getting the vaccine?

WEISS: And its not just misinformation in the community that shes dealing with. Just today she got an e-mail from the county public health department announcing new H1N1 vaccines were here. She immediately saw a problem in the message - it was targeting two high-risk groups: pregnant women and asthmatics. But the newly arrived vaccines were in flu-mist form - mist nasal spray is not approved for these groups.

Ms. MCCALLUM: Hi, may I speak to Robin, please?

WEISS: Right away she is on the phone with the health department.

Ms. MCCALLUM: Do you think we should put out another staff e-mail and clarify if you have asthma or pregnant

WEISS: She's also dealing with a tragedy in the community. About two weeks ago, a first grade student in the district with a confirmed case of swine flu was hospitalized and died. The students school, Browns Valley Elementary, was shut down for two days after about a quarter of the children called in sick once the news broke.

Ms. MCCALLUM: Obviously the death in our community has caused more of a panic than I think other school districts have had to experience. And I fully understand that. We are all very saddened by that death. This isnt anything new that people are dying from a flu virus, its just the demographic group has changed and more children are being affected.

WEISS: Because of this, many parents are turning to McCallum for advice. This means a lot of extra hours. But she says stepping up during a flu pandemic is exactly what a school nurse is supposed to do.

WEISS: For NPR News, Im Kelley Weiss in Sacramento.

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