Her job is to be 14 places at once.
Her office is the back of her bright red Grand Am.
Her signature tool is not a stethoscope, but a cellular phone.
The first full-time school nurse in Coeur d’Alene deals daily with head lice and vision tests, teen pregnancy and mystery rashes. She’s breathtakingly busy but might not slow down, even if she could.
“To tell the truth,” Terri Ethridge said brightly, “this job had my name written all over it.”
That’s what she thought when she spotted the job announcement on a bulletin board at Kootenai Medical Center, where she worked.
Ethridge got her new job in January. She’s still employed by KMC, although she also has a supervisor at the Coeur d’Alene School District.
School district officials approached the hospital last fall. They had been contracting with Panhandle Health District nurses to cover health issues, but were looking to hire their own nurse. They looked to KMC for help.
But they had only enough money for a quarter-time position.
“We said sure, we can find someone right away, but we think it’s a little bigger job than that,” recalled Joe Morris, KMC administrator.
The hospital board agreed to pay the remaining three-quarters of the nurse’s salary, to make the position full time. They wanted to demonstrate how effective a school nurse can be, and assess the medical needs of children in the community.
Apparently the only other full-time school nurse in North Idaho is Barbara Benson, who works for the Bonner County school district. For the past year, that district has had 1-1/2 nursing positions to cover 18 schools.
Some schools have no nursing care at all, according to Morris.
In Coeur d’Alene, he said, “We tried a couple of different individuals before we selected Terri. We wanted someone with experience in school nursing, someone who relates well to kids, and is enthusiastic and self-motivated.”
Ethridge’s self-motivation begins every morning when her feet hit the bedroom floor in her St. Maries home. She makes the 75-minute commute to Coeur d’Alene in what she calls “the red blur” on U.S. Highway 95.
She was attracted, she said, to “the pioneerism” involved in developing a school nurse program.
Ethridge is a Texas native. She’s been a registered nurse since 1972, and earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1993 while living in Alaska.
“In Anchorage, I did a lot of health teaching, volunteered for health fairs,” she said.
“I’ve taken teenagers in, like stray cats, and gotten them back into school … I was the neighborhood nurse. Everybody brought their sick kids to my house.”
Now, much of her time is spent fielding phone calls from Coeur d’Alene’s 14 schools. She relies heavily on school secretaries and counselors, calling them her “surrogate nurses.” She asks them questions to determine which students are most in need of help.
By early afternoon one day last week, she had discussed five student cases.
“I do a lot of telephone triage,” Ethridge said. “If I feel I need to see the child, I go to the school. I contact the parents.”
If a family can’t afford medical care, she looks for someone who can provide it. She works with the pediatric committee at KMC, with local dentists, with the Panhandle Health District. The Lions Club provides eyeglasses, and she’s talked them into buying a portable, remote-controlled machine for inschool eye exams.
Her other responsibilities include deciding what kind of health education students and staff need. She’d barely started her job when she applied for and won a state grant to pay for HIV/AIDS training for teachers, which will take place next fall.
She’s joined the national School Nurses Association, is taking school-nurse training in Spokane. She’s convinced the school district to send her to an international school nurses meeting in Alaska this summer.
Most days, Ethridge schedules routine, one-hour visits at three or four schools.
She has a soft spot for teenagers, in part because the younger of her two sons is 18. But those young adults can have some pretty serious problems to deal with.
In comparison, the little ones have many more questions - but they’re easier ones to answer.
“They get so excited to see the school nurse.”
Last week’s schedule included sitting in on a hygiene class for fifth-grade boys at Hayden Meadows Elementary.
When they were introduced to the new school nurse, one of them asked: “Does she know every single disease in the whole world?”
“No,” Ethridge responded. “But give me 20 minutes and I’ll look it up on the Internet.”
Ethridge longs for a portable computer and more time. But she doesn’t lack for support from the medical community and school personnel. She brags about how much help she gets in her new job.
“It’s so exciting and so rewarding,” she said. “You feel like you’re contributing something.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo