Superhero in Scrubs

Six feet, mask up, wash hands. These phrases now seem natural, part of everyday life, but at one time we were in the dark. Around the country, schools have been opening. Bringing hundreds of kids into buildings now equipped to handle our “New Normal.” With every bell signaling the next class, there are things happening behind the scenes.  Custodians cleaning, teachers washing materials, and nurses leading it all. School nurses now have to protect school communities from an unseen threat: Covid-19. “The research is evolving and we have to stay on top of it and change our position, so that’s the biggest challenge,” said Nurse Debra Elam of Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools. 

Nurse Elam is new to the Chagrin Falls School District and has had to adjust to a new job and a global pandemic. Navigating a new school community can be overwhelming, but Nurse Elam has been resilient. She has adjusted to a new job and kept the district safe. Covid-19 protocols and teaching methods have made this year challenging, but Nurse Elam has kept the district safe. Nearing the end of the first year on the job Nurse Elam has made a huge impact.

Ms. Elam grew up in Maple Heights and aspired to be a teacher as a child. When middle school came around she changed her dream career to a hairstylist. Then, “In high school, we would do career indicator tests that try to determine which type of work you should do. They told me that I would be good with public service. That’s like teaching and nursing, so both fall in that realm. That’s when I was really searching more and more. Then, I found a program that I loved at Ursuline College and that’s where I went to for undergrad.” As a school nurse, Elam incorporates her childhood dream of being a teacher and her nursing training. 

“It’s just trying to keep people as safe as possible while we don’t know everything that is necessary to know about this disease yet. We only can go on the research we have. We are trying to make our best decisions based on the information we have, but we have never been down this road before.” A new path has to be forged through a sea of new studies. The first priority is to keep everyone safe while ensuring the continuation of learning. 

Jennifer Bencko, the Chagrin Falls Schools’ Director of Pupil Services and  Covid-19 coordinator adds that “[Elam]  has done a lot of reading and research to make sure that what we are doing is following the guidance from the health department or the CDC.” Ensuring student safety revolves around obtaining trustworthy health guidance. In addition, “[Elam] uses her professional network of other school nurses and healthcare professionals to make sure we are always getting the most updated information.” Jennifer Bencko works closely alongside Nurse Elam to make sure that every student and staff member in the district is in a safe environment.

Nurse Elam wants to be a support system for the school community. “The kids’ safety and academic success are important to me. If there is any way I can help, I have an open door and they can come and talk to me any time,” Elam commented. If anyone needs help or advice her office is a safe environment for students to go. 

Jennifer Bencko remarked that “Nurse Elam is a very caring person, she really cares about the people she works with and the students that she works with. She has a really strong work ethic and works long days.” As a new member of the Chagrin Falls community, Ms. Elam is already making an impact. Bencko adds, “ Nurse Elam really has integrated herself into the school community by working with students and staff. She is really crucial in making sure we are current on all health practices, that we have updated supplies and equipment, and that all the practices are safely carried out.”

For Nurse Elam, her family has been a great support while adjusting to her new position. During a pandemic, nurses are facing great stress to keep people safe. In schools, nurses control all health matters along with the administration. Enforcing protocols and ensuring safety adds stress. When stress starts to take hold she looks to her family and faith for help and “along with that, I like to be still, not be rushing around. I will meditate, sometimes listen to music. Help my spirit that way,” Elam said. 

In Elam’s free time, she visits her children and grandchildren. Family time is very important to her and she cherishes every moment. When she is not with her family she enjoys walks in nature, reading, and doing crafts. Although free time may be limited, she has definitely made a big impact in her first year on the job.