LEWISTON — The seminars sounded like they belonged in a major city hospital: “Serving English Learners,” “You Are the Key to HPV Cancer Prevention,” and “Hemophilia and Von Willebrand Disease.”

At Bates College in Lewiston this week, they weren’t meant for medical students or hospital specialists, but for school nurses.

“I think the average person has no clue what school nurses do,” said Ann Bouchard, a high school nurse in Waterville. “Dispensing Band-Aids is the least of our concerns.”

About 150 people — half of the school nurses in Maine — gathered at Bates this week for the annual School Nurse Summer Institute. The three-day event, presented by the Maine Department of Education, featured expert talks, educational breakout sessions and exhibits. 

Much of the focus centered on issues few outsiders would associate with school nursing: emotional trauma in children, students returning to school after psychiatric hospitalization, sexually transmitted disease and medical marijuana.   

One session Wednesday covered English language learners — typically immigrants and refugees who range from nearly fluent in English to unable to understand a word.

While total school enrollment in Maine dropped 11 percent over the past 15 years, the number of English language learners has nearly doubled, from 2,737 students in 2000-01 to 5,283 in 2014-15.

“If you don’t have one now, you might have one later,” Nancy Mullins, director of the English as a second language/bilingual programs for the Maine Department of Education, told about a dozen school nurses Wednesday morning.

Most of the nurses in the room, including two from Lewiston, said they’re already well-acquainted with ELL students and the special challenges of caring for them.

“When they’re sick, they lose their English — totally lose it,” said Cheryl Tardiff, school nurse at Hebron Academy, which has students from 20 countries. “They can’t describe their illness to us.” 

And then there are the students’ parents. 

“When I just need to let parents know something has happened in school, not (that) they need to do anything … because of the language issue, they immediately think I’m asking them to take their child to the doctor,” said Nancy Dipretoro, a school nurse at Riverton Elementary School in Portland. “The in-school translator isn’t always available.” 

Mullins’ advice: Keep trying, and be patient as students and parents try to communicate. Be culturally sensitive — ask the family questions when unsure — for example, asking parents if it is OK to remove their daughter’s head scarf if she may have gotten a concussion.

It’s a question many school nurses in Maine never had to consider before.

“You just learn,” Mullins said.

The three-day conference runs through Thursday.

Many attendees said it can be daunting to be the only ones in their school responsible for attending to the illnesses, injuries, mental health issues, emergencies and general health care of hundreds of students who need to feel well in order to learn. But it’s worth it.   

“That’s what it’s all about, the relationships that we’re able to develop,” Bouchard said. “In some ways, it’s a very special opportunity to be a school nurse because every day when you go home from work you can feel as though you’ve done something that’s impacted somebody’s day in a positive way. You have the opportunity to deal with students one on one and and touch their lives. And they touch yours.”

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