Virtually all areas of education have changed over the last few decades, but perhaps none have seen as noteworthy a progression as school health care.
Carolyn Sabo can attest to that.
“My job as a school nurse changed exponentially over the years,” she said. “When I started my career at Zahnow, we still used glass thermometers, and there were no such things as gloves.”
Sabo, who most recently served as nurse at Zahnow Elementary and was head of all Waterloo School District nurses, will no longer have to keep updated on the latest changes in school nursing, however, because she retired May 25 after more than 30 years.
Sabo started in the school district in August 1988, but has been serving as a health care provider in Waterloo for 38 years.
As a student at Gibault Catholic High School in 1978, she started her career as a nursing assistant at Oak Hill.
She then worked three years at the Monroe-Randolph County Health Department, helping at clinics and giving immunizations, and worked at Memorial Hospital for three years until 1985.
She continued working per diem at the hospital for a decade because she only worked part-time in the school district, and taught classes at Missouri Baptist University and Southwestern Illinois College for years.
She eventually taught some in the school district, but Sabo was originally hired as the only registered nurse in the district.
“My hours were 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I would spend most of my day at Zahnow Elementary and an hour or so a day at the junior/senior high,” Sabo recalled.
A friend who worked in the district told Sabo about the job, and she realized it made sense given where she was in life.
“I was interested in working at the schools because it would allow me more flexible hours to be with my family,” Sabo said.
“My daughter was 4 at the time, and my son 1 year of age. I also really loved working with kids.”
During her career in the school district, Sabo served in several roles, including working as the assistant director of drama at Waterloo High School for a few semesters because she had a background in drama from Gibault.
She also taught a health occupations class for three years at WHS.
Her part-time job became a full-time one, and it also became focused on leadership as she oversaw the four nurses who work in the district’s other buildings.
While doing all that, Sabo went back to school, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree and getting accredited as a certified school nurse, vision and hearing screener and CPR instructor.
As she learned herself, Sabo was also responsible for educating her colleagues in the district, on top of numerous other responsibilities.
“I had to learn to teach staff about blood-borne pathogens, CPR and first aid,” Sabo noted. “I also was assigned the task of being the expert on head lice, food allergies and EpiPens, seizure and asthma action plans, increased immunization requirements, increased medications being administered in the schools, disaster preparedness, first aid supplies for all classrooms, potential intruder drill first aid, Hepatitis A, staph infections, arranging the annual dentist visit each year, and doing hundreds of vision and hearing screenings, increased reports needed for the state. We have also had a dramatic increase in the numbers of students who have diabetes, tube feedings, and other special services for those who are physically challenged.”
Sabo said the last school year provided the “ultimate challenge,” as she was one of the key people responsible for managing COVID-19 in the schools and implementing necessary safety protocols.
With all those tasks, Sabo said one of her biggest challenges before the pandemic was the increased needs of the growing school population.
“There were many years that I was assigned to at least two different buildings – trying to ensure that the students and staff were safe, while being called to various locations throughout the day,” she said. “The most difficult challenge that I faced being the only nurse in a building was providing services to all staff, administration, students, and parents, many of whom had no experience with a specific illness or disease process. (I had to overcome) the stereotype that all a school nurse does is hand out Band-Aids and crackers.”
Despite the many challenges she encountered over her career, Sabo said she thinks fondly of her work.
“Looking back on my career, I feel that God put me in the right place at the right time,” she reflected.
“I have met some of the most amazing people while being a school nurse that have helped me throughout my life. To be able to help a child is very rewarding work. Even with all of the challenges, I feel that I have been blessed to be part of a great school community.
In addition, although the ballooning number of students added to her work, Sabo said she enjoyed working with them the most.
“I have had the chance to meet and know so many awesome kids throughout the years,” she said. “I would always strive to try and be a positive influence and advocate for them, whether that was helping them to make it through a challenging year or dealing with an injury, illness or long-term disability.”
Now she is retired, Sabo plans to spend more time with her family and travel more – such as visiting her two children on the country’s coasts.