Unsung Heroes: The unbreakable dedication of a district nurse

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Wassom is in her office on a regular morning, preparing for a full week of grappling with HHS germs.

As winter approaches and the cold, dark elements sink in. Germs lurk throughout school and in student homes. Illness spreads and immune systems surrender. Long winter months spent cooped up inside, behind closed windows and doors. The picture may seem grim, but not to one who faces the reality of student health and well-being during flu and cold season: HHS district nurse Rhonda Wassom.  

Wassom knows the battle of the germs is a tremendous challenge in the face of the wintry hex of sniffles, coughs, and running noses. She is one of three district nurses in the Fort Thomas area covering all five district schools, including the high school, middle school, and elementary schools. She’s been a nurse for 32 years, working in the ER before settling at Highlands High School (HHS). She says she chose her current job as a district nurse because it is more fulfilling, with a deeper purpose.  

That job entails many tasks, not just those directly related to hands-on health care. They include state compliance, student enrollment, and medical histories for all students’ information. It must be accurate and up-to-date as it is consulted before any field trip or other activity a student participates in. It’s safe to say that anything, and everything, remotely related to the health of the HHS student body falls into her hands.  

Though flu season is notorious for its impacts on students and faculty, a cause of missed days and early dismissals, there are other health challenges, some quite serious, faced each day by fellow students and their dedicated nurses. 

Wassom deals with dire health situations and circumstances, including those of students coping with illnesses and conditions such as diabetes, seizures, and others. These demand constant attentiveness each day from someone who stands ready to monitor and shield vulnerable students from incoming threats and afflictions. Wassom says another increasing focus is the growing number of students with mental health issues.

Wassom’s fellow district nurses come together with this same universal commitment— the dedication and effort they pull to keep life-changing conditions and illnesses in check, as well as to stay abreast of the mental health of all students. 

Amanda Cowens, a nurse at Highlands Middle School says that this job is about more than just applying a bandage and cleaning a cut: particularly in this day and age, health is a very fragile thing. 

She says that she sees more and more students coming to school with life-altering and at times life-threatening health diagnoses, including, diabetes, seizures, food allergies, and mental health traumas and issues. “Nurses,” says Cowens, “are the liaison between the education and healthcare system, working to hold it all together.”  

And it’s much more than just physical awareness and assessments. The job takes a level of mental prediction and inquiry to figure out what could be going on behind the scenes in a child’s life, something they may not want to share, Cowens says. 

“As nurses, we have an innate skill to use our critical thinking to assess and figure out the needs of people when things don’t feel or seem right,” says Cowens. “We can also guide next steps to get students the help and or resources they need to get back to their baseline.”

But as much as this job impacts lives, it is also true that it is largely done behind the scenes, escaping notice.

Assistant principal Jennifer Forgy agrees, noting that the job of a nurse is one of few thanks, even though it is a critical role at HHS. 

With a motivation exceeding any health impediment, HHS nurse Wassom marches through the school days courageously, with the goal of good student physical and mental health front of mind. Inspiration for her job powers her on, as she seeks to deflect any hurt that comes her students’ way: an invisible shield in hand and a large human heart on full display.