Stella Aleman-Putman plans to be a doctor and cure diabetes when she grows up. Until then, she’ll keep monitoring her blood sugar and depend on her insulin pump for survival.
For the past few years at Burton Elementary School in Grand Rapids, she also relied on Janna Jolman, RN, for help counting carbs, monitoring her blood sugar and ensuring she’s safe, healthy and ready to learn. Stella is quick to point out that nurse Janna, who helped her through the Spectrum Health School Health Advocacy Program, is “the No. 1 best nurse in the world.”
According to Stella’s parents, Ana and Tim Aleman-Putman, Stella’s health problems began at 18 months old. While on antibiotics for an ear infection, her symptoms became so severe they took her to the emergency room.
“I could see that my baby was dying,” said Ana tearfully. “I didn’t know what was wrong with her.”
They soon had an answer: Stella has type 1 diabetes. She spent the next 48 hours in intensive care to regulate her blood sugar.
“In a matter of hours we needed to learn what it would take to keep her alive and healthy when she went home with us,” Tim said. “We discovered that diabetes care is a constant, 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week job.”
As Stella became school age, the time came to entrust her care to others.
“Sending her to kindergarten was terrifying at first. As a parent, it was a leap of faith to send our child to school,” Tim said. “But nurse Janna helped us feel OK … She gave us peace of mind.”
This year, nurse Janna is working in a new role and Stella has switched schools so it was a happy moment when they reunited for this article. Stella even painted a canvas of the two of them side-by-side and gave it to her with a giant hug.
When nurse Janna asked how the insulin pump is working out, Stella promptly tugged up her shirt for a quick show-and-tell. She explained that the pump is like a very tiny computer that knows how much sugar she needs (“but not like sugar in your coffee”). And it’s much easier than getting shots.
Ana is doubly appreciative of the School Health Advocacy Program, which began 20 years ago. Not only is she Stella’s mother, Ana is also the principal of Burton Elementary School.
“Onsite health workers are essential to making the school run more smoothly,” Ana said. “It’s hugely important.”
Each year, approximately 29,000 students in seven West Michigan school districts benefit from the program, which places RNs and/or trained community health workers in area schools. It means teachers can focus on teaching because the nurses and trained community health workers are there to provide first aid, manage chronic diseases, facilitate immunizations, diagnose tummy troubles, eradicate lice and put bandages on scrapes.
And when students have learning or behavior issues, health advocacy workers are key members of the team because they can often address underlying medical issues or health concerns.
“Children need to be healthy and attending school to learn,” noted Stephanie Painter, program director of the School Health Advocacy Program for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “We help the kids, but we also help parents who may not understand their child’s medical plan or may have trouble communicating with their physicians.”
Painter, who was a school nurse herself 20 years ago, said there has been a huge increase in the complexity of care today. There are more students with severe allergies. More students with tracheotomies. More students with catheters. More students in wheelchairs. And there are many students who, like Stella, must count carbs, check blood sugar and receive daily insulin through injections or a pump.
For families with complex health issues, the health advocacy program makes the transition into the classroom easier. And for the health workers who walk beside them, it’s satisfying work.
“I loved being able to do this job,” nurse Janna said. “Working with Stella and the other students has been a gift for me.”