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AJN Speaks With Mary Pappas, School Nurse Who Alerted CDC to Swine Flu Outbreak

April 29, 2009
Emergency hospital, Camp Funston, Kansas, during 1918-19 influenza epidemic that caused 50 million deaths worldwide. As of today, only one death from swine flu has been reported in the United States. Photo from otisarchives4, via Flickr.

Emergency hospital, Camp Funston, Kansas, during 1918-19 influenza epidemic that caused 50 million deaths worldwide. As of today, only one death from swine flu has been reported in the United States. Photo from otisarchives4, via Flickr.

Mary Pappas, BSN, RN, is the nurse at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens who first notified officials  of the swine flu outbreak. She’s been interviewed by the New York Times and by National Public Radio in the last two days. This morning she found time to speak with AJN about her experiences.

A nurse of 27 years, Pappas credits her broad range of experience in pediatric nursing, hospital nursing, and nursing at summer camps with preparing her to recognize that something was not right and to react calmly and decisively when frightened students started arriving at her office last Thursday with fever, nausea, sore throats, difficulty breathing, and other flu-like symptoms.

St. Francis is the largest Catholic high school in the United States, and Pappas is the “only nurse for 2,600 plus kids.” After a while, she says, as students showed up in greater numbers she “knew it was something bigger.” Soon the hallway had been lined with chairs in which sick kids awaited treatment.

Pappas—who has been at St. Francis for six years and whose son attends the school and became mildly ill as well—decided to get in touch with Gary Krigsman, a supervising physician in the bureau of school health. She already had his cell phone number, since she often talks with him about health care questions, and he quickly referred her to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Was she worried for her own health? No, she says, “I’m not one to get sick when I treat people . . . knock on wood. I put that out of my head.” She and her two assistants took normal infectious disease precautions, such as handwashing, but she didn’t wear a mask—she was worried it might “make kids even more fearful.”

When asked what advice she’d have for nurses in a situation like this, Pappas says, “A lot of nurses don’t recognize that they have great organization skills. . . . Rely on yourself, stick to basics, prioritize.” She focused on hydrating the children, monitoring their temperatures (sometimes with the help of security guards, secretaries, and others), and getting their parents on the phone (it helped that many of the kids had cell phones and could dial their parents and put Pappas on the line). That day they sent 102 children home.

Pappas, who has three sons, ages 16, 17, and 21, is off this week, but the school plans to reopen next Monday. She says that people in her community don’t seem very afraid of catching the swine flu, and are “just carrying on.” When not at work, Pappas likes to go the beach, bike, walk, and garden. She stays fit, and often either makes the 45-minute walk to work or rides there on her bike. People, she says, sometimes think it’s funny that she brings her bike into the office. Sounds just fine to us.

-Jacob Molyneux, AJN senior editor

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(And here’s a more recent post on the same topic: National School Nurse Day–The Timing Couldn’t Be Better.)

One comment

  1. [...] watchful eye of a school nurse in New York City. Had she not been a daily presence at her facility, Mary Pappas, an experienced high school nurse, might not have noticed the escalating number of sick students [...]

    Like this



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