She tends to much more than cuts and bruises

When Margaret Polk became a school nurse more than a quarter-century ago, there were full-time nurses in all of Pasco County’s public high schools funded by a grant.

Those days and that funding are long gone.

Now, “most of us have at least two or three schools,” Polk said. She divides her time between Pasco High School and the James Ervin Education Center, and recently picked up a third school because the nurse there resigned.

Margaret Polk, a school nurse who works at Pasco High School and two other schools, was selected by the Florida Association of School Nurses as the 2017 School Nurse of the Year. The photos on the bulletin board behind her are just some of the students she’s interacted with over the years.
(B.C. Manion)

It’s a challenging job, with wide-ranging demands, but Polk — who was named the Florida Association of School Nurses’ 2017 School Nurse of the Year — loves it.

Although she’s picked up additional duties, Polk has always been at Pasco High, and that longevity in one place has its advantages, she said.

She not only knows the school’s current students, in many cases, she knows their parents from when they were students, too.

Polk is deeply familiar with help available through community organizations or government agencies that can provide assistance beyond the school’s resources.

Sometimes, for instance, a student screening will reveal a problem, but parents have no clue where to go from there. And, even when they know where to turn, money can be a problem, Polk said.

So, she turns to a network of community partnerships — including the West Pasco Dental Association, Kiwanis Club, and the Cattleman’s Association — to try to bridge the gap.

“My husband (Ray Polk) was born and raised here (in Dade City). He knows people from way back. I use those connections,” she said.

She also taps into resources available through other agencies and organizations.

She works closely with a nurse practitioner, provided through the Pasco Health Department, who gives onsite support at Pasco High.

Polk also is credited for spearheading an initiative for bringing mental health services directly to students at Pasco High.

“Most people, when they think of school nurse, they actually think of what our clinic assistants do,” Polk said.

But, school nurses handle more than kids with headaches, stomach aches, twisted ankles or symptoms of the flu.

“We are seeing more and more kids come in with chronic illnesses,” Polk said. “I’m seeing a lot more diabetes, a lot more asthma, severe allergies.

“We have so many kids with mental health issues,” she said.

There are students who have special needs and require care plans.

“We need to figure out what we need to do to keep them safe at school, to get them the services they need,” she said.

She also noted that sometimes a school nurse is the first to recognize what could turn out to be a serious health problem.

For instance, a student who has been losing a lot of weight may come into the clinic and require more help than the nurse can provide.

“You call the parent and they don’t have insurance, and they don’t know where to go,” Polk said.

“I can start with my nurse practitioner. We do an evaluation,” she said. If a student needs blood work, she has some funding she can use to pay for it.

“You do get to know the families, and you know what resources they have, or don’t have,” she said.

“Maybe you go out to do a home visit because you can’t get a hold of the parents. You just need to face-to-face talk sometimes,” Polk said.

Sometimes, during those visits, she’ll find that another child in the family has health problems. In some cases, she may end up helping an entire family.

Generally, people are receptive — but not always, she said.

She recalled an instance when a student had severe scoliosis.

The parent was not inclined to seek help. The parent reasoned: “This is what she was given.”

But, Polk reminded the parent there are also people who are given skills to treat the condition.

As for her own foray into nursing, Polk isn’t precisely sure when she made the decision to pursue that career.

But, she thinks the seed was likely planted early.

“My dad was a doctor. My mom was a nurse,” Polk said.

She belonged to the high school health education club and was a Candy Striper during high school, helping out at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, where she grew up.

“I used to go with my dad to the hospital.

He was at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Bay Pines Hospital in St. Petersburg.

“He was in nuclear medicine when it was first coming out. I got to watch them develop programs for it. It just fascinated me,” Polk said.

She also remembers gravitating toward medical topics, when she did science projects.

“I always ended up doing things on blood, and the heart, those types of things,” Polk said.

She wound up working at Pasco High School because her husband, Ray, grew up in the community. He’s now director of Academy at the Farm, a public charter school.

Over the years, as Polk has watched students she has served grow up and have families of their own, she and Ray’s children have done the same.

The couple now has three grown children who are married, and they have eight grandchildren.

Polk said she knew she was being nominated for the statewide honor, but didn’t expect to win.

So, when she received a call from the Florida Association of School Nurses informing her that she’d won the award, she was dumbfounded.

“I sat there, sort of stunned,” she said.

Even though the award was given in January, and Polk has been honored at gatherings in Orlando, and in Gainesville, she’s still somewhat in awe of the distinction.

So many school nurses do such good work, she said, it’s hard to imagine being singled out.

“I am amazed. It’s such an honor,” she said.

Published March 29, 2017

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