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School nurses shine amid the pandemic

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This year, diocesan Catholic school nurses performed the everyday tasks such as distributing needed medication, assessing injuries and providing ice packs and bandages. But they also researched health department guidelines, created mitigation plans, helped administrators implement new policies and cared for students who had symptoms of COVID-19 until they could go home. Thanks to their tremendous efforts, many students attended school in person, and very few contracted the virus. Here are three nurses who helped make all that possible.  


Jennifer Bliven


Without the medical attention she received as a newborn, Jennifer Bliven wouldn't be here. The school nurse at Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna was born by emergency cesarean section with double collapsed lungs. She wasn’t expected to make it home from the hospital. “My parents were told to make arrangements for a funeral,” said Bliven. But the doctor worked miracles and against the odds, Bliven said, she lived. “My mom stayed in the hospital for a week, and a week after that they called and said, ‘You need to find a car seat and come pick up your kid, she’s ready to come home.’ ”


Her bumpy entrance into the world inspired her to become a labor and delivery nurse, where she cared for “the tiniest humans ever,” she said. As a school nurse, “the tiny humans are just a little bit bigger. But it's still getting to take care of children and families, which is what got me into medicine to begin with.”


This year has been unlike any other in her professional life, said Bliven. “As a nurse, I lived through 9/11 in the Washington area. I was a nurse when white powder (anthrax) was (being sent) in envelopes. I was a nurse during the H1N1 outbreak. When (the coronavirus pandemic) started, I had a false sense of hope that we were going to be able to navigate it the way we did those things,” she said. “Each day there was some new change and some new guidance, and you had to put all that in God’s hands and ask for his protection.”


But in spite of the challenges faced by Bliven and the school leaders, the community was able to offer students in-person learning the whole year. For her efforts, Bliven was recognized as the only school nurse of Washingtonian Magazine's “50 exceptional nurses.” She sees her success as a team effort, from her fellow Catholic school nurses to the OLGC teachers, administrators and parents. “The OLGC community — it’s this huge family. I could not do my job without the families here who support all of us 100 percent,” she said. “We all worked together to make this year so successful.”


Janeil Sendi


As she watched her seventh grade daughter set foot on campus on the first day of school in the middle of a pandemic, Janeil Sendi thought to herself, “There goes my little pioneer.” Sendi, a registered nurse at Blessed Sacrament School in Alexandria, thought of all the diocesan families and school leaders who were forging ahead with in-person learning. As one of the people creating mitigation policies to help keep her community healthy, she knew the journey they were about to embark on wouldn’t be easy.


“I sat in meetings over the summer with the Virginia Council of Private Education, the Virginia Department of Education, the Alexandria Department of Health and the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools,” said Sendi. “(The other nurses and I) would go to every meeting and were like, ‘Please tell us what to do.’ Everyone was like, ‘You write a plan, present it to us, we'll review it and we’ll go from there.’ ”  Though the autonomy was frightening at first, Sendi came to realize having an individualized plan was the key to Blessed Sacrament’s success.


Over the summer, Sendi took an online contact tracing course to help prepare her and the other two school nurses for the year. The school had its first COVID-19 case in November and has had fewer than 10 total, she said. Throughout the year she felt like a diplomat, conversing with parents and staff who thought the policies were either too strict or too lenient. Her close working relationships with local health authorities helped her to be confident when policies had to be enforced. “It's been good to have that collaboration with them. The (Alexandria Department of Health) epidemiologist and I are on a first-name basis,” she said.


Ultimately, Sendi believes the community accomplished what it set out to do. “We decided we were doing the five days a week in person. We felt like that would offer the best education for the students, we felt like that’s what the majority of the families wanted,” she said.


“By the grace of God, a lot of hard work, a lot of research, a lot of collaboration (and) a lot of prayer, it worked.”


Mary Foley


Mary Foley always wanted to be a nurse, but it took some time to put her dream into action. She was working in another field when 9/11 happened. “I went, ‘What am I doing?' and I switched gears, went into nursing and haven’t looked back.” 


For many years she worked in a post-anesthesia critical care unit, but last fall she began working at St. Luke School in McLean, which both she and her son attended. “I remember always thinking eventually I would love to be a school nurse because of my positive experience when I was a kid,” she said. “I only went (to see the nurse) a couple of times but that was impactful enough because it was a warm and caring environment. That's what I hope I’m doing for the kids here.”


Though many of the bumps and scrapes she treats aren’t serious, it doesn’t always feel that way to the children, she said. “So I treat them as serious too, giving them the same heartfelt care and attention.” It’s been an incredibly affirming experience, said Foley. “You can give your love and your heart and your knowledge and the kids are just so thankful,” she said. “It’s a feel-good place to work. The kids just melt my heart.”


She’s gratified that, thanks in part to the cooperation of the students with all the new safety rules, they can all be together, learning in person through the pandemic. “Just to see the kids able to be here, even with having to wear masks, the laughter and the socialization, just walking down the halls and hearing all that they get to learn — it’s just so enriching,” she said. “I'm just so happy that they have this opportunity.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021