School Nurse of Year builds trust with students


On May 21 the Rhode Island Certified School Nurse Teachers (RICSNT) will honor Bernadette McDowell, school nurse at Winman Junior High, recognizing her as the School Nurse Teacher of the Year. McDowell will be recognized during the RICSNT annual banquet on that evening.

“I was surprised, and the more I think of it the more humbled I am,” said McDowell, adding that there are so many fantastic school nurses in the state who also deserve the recognition. “To be recognized for what I do is just wonderful.”

Employed with the Warwick School Department since 1998, McDowell has been the nurse at Winman for the past eight years. Prior to that, she worked in Warwick elementary schools including Rhodes, Oakland Beach Elementary, Park Elementary, Scott, Drum Rock and Potowomut School.

“They’re just so cute,” said McDowell about working with elementary school students. “It takes a while to decipher what they want because they have so many stories.”

McDowell loved getting the chance to be in the classroom, working with students on different health topics; she even organized a program to help all sixth graders become CPR certified.

Prior to being a school nurse in Warwick, McDowell was a registered nurse in a number of regional hospitals, including working for 19 years at Kent Hospital.

McDowell admits when the opportunity to transition from the elementary to junior high level came up she was hesitant. But she took a chance, and it paid off.

“I have not been sad since I came here,” said McDowell.

McDowell said she has been able to develop a great relationship with the junior high students; they have fun and laugh at her jokes, but they also trust her.

“They come down here and tell me all their problems,” she said.

She admits the junior high students keep her on her toes and are pretty creative when it comes to avoiding class. But McDowell doesn’t let that happen.

“I’m very good at triaging students,” she said, sending students on their way back to class quickly.

At Winman, McDowell can advocate for students who may be facing medical issues that can have an effect on their schoolwork, such as diabetes, asthma or other conditions. This is also the time in a child’s life when their bodies are changing and mental health concerns may rise to the surface.

“It’s like little kids in bigger bodies. They still need someone who’s around for them,” said McDowell. “You can still reach them now.”

But McDowell isn’t just a school nurse; she is also an adult education practitioner and community health educator for the Warwick School Department. She also takes time to be a member of many professional organizations, including RICSNT and the National Association of School Nurses, of which she has been the Rhode Island director for four years. Elected to the position, her term is coming to an end this year.

Through this position, McDowell has been to Washington, D.C. every January to advocate for the health and wellness of children, developing networking and leadership skills.

“I have grown professionally through the experiences I’ve had,” said McDowell.

McDowell has also held various positions on the Board of Directors for RICSNT.

McDowell said it is important to take part in these professional organizations because the school nursing profession is very different from other nursing fields, something she didn’t even realize as a hospital nurse.

“A lot of people think we just put Band-Aids on cuts and hand out ice,” said McDowell.

But it takes so much more, helping kids with issues spilling over from home, providing special care such a vision and scoliosis screenings, and creating emergency care plans for students. There are also additional education requirements to be a nurse in a school.

Having the opportunity to work with other school nurses across the state and across the country in these organizations has given her valuable insight into her profession.

“I like to be a part of the change. If you’re not there working on the process, you won’t have a say in what happens,” said McDowell.

A health advocate, McDowell was also appointed to the Rhode Island Department of Health Women’s Health Advisory Committee and the Childhood Immunization Coalition. As part of the coalition, McDowell is able to stay up to date on different childhood vaccines available and updates to them. Her time with the committee is coming to an end, but she said it was wonderful having a chance to advocate and give opinions on bills in the General Assembly regarding women’s health.

As if this wasn’t enough to make her Nurse of the Year, McDowell volunteers on her free time for state programs such as SunSmart cancer screenings at beaches in the summer and the Mission of Mercy Dental clinic in June, just to name a few. She volunteers with The Wellness Group to administer vaccines, which is her role at dental clinics.

“It’s amazing the people you meet while volunteering. They motivate you and make you want to do wonderful things. It’s an amazing thing to see,” said McDowell.

Most recently, she volunteered with The Wellness Group to administer vaccines at the Feed 1,000 holiday event for the homeless, held in Providence by a Pawtucket-based company in place of their office holiday party.

“I was truly touched by that,” said McDowell, who is currently holding a coat drive to collect donations for the same event this December.

According to a press release, RICSNT is pleased and proud to honor such a dedicated and devoted professional, “whose emphasis is on the children and families that she serves.”

As for those families, McDowell says her students don’t know about her Nurse of the Year status, but it doesn’t matter.

“They know I am here and that’s what matters,” she said.

Although she has received congratulatory cards, flowers and gifts from her wonderful support system of friends, family and colleagues, McDowell is not a school nurse because of the fame and recognition she is receiving. She truly loves her job and feels lucky to have a job she enjoys going to every day.

“To be able to be a nurse and a teacher at the same time is what I always wanted,” said McDowell. “It’s really a wonderful feeling that you know what to do and you can help people.”


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