May 9 is National School Nurse Day, a part of National Nurses Week (May 6-12), and we celebrate the hard work and dedication of all school nurses by telling the story of one among them, Eileen Byrne.
When kids get sick, especially at school, they’re at their most vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important to have someone caring, competent and committed to be there in support of their health and well-being so they have the best chance of successful in the classroom.
Eileen O’Connell Byrne was that person for almost a generation of CPS schoolchildren. Byrne was a school nurse at John Barry Elementary School for 22 years, at Charles Allen Prosser Career Academy High School for 20 years, and served at several others during her time with CPS. In fact, Byrne would likely have stayed longer had had she not been required to retire at the mandatory age of 70.
Byrne kept working, however; first as a nurse at a day care center before returning to CPS to work as a nurse consultant in the Central Office in the mid-1980s. She was thrilled when she was given a small cubicle on the 9th floor, and that’s where she worked until the age of 92 when a stroke put her out of commission. Sadly, Byrne passed away in December 2011 at the age of 97.
Byrne was a “Teacher-Nurse,” as they were called then. She had been a nurse for years before going back to school to get her teaching certificate and joining CPS, explained her daughter, a Teacher of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing working previously in the Central Office and now Citywide, whose name is also Eileen (she goes by “Eileen Jr.”).
Byrne had quite an exciting life in her early days of nursing, a fact that might have been difficult for the students she served for so many years to believe, thanks to her mild manner. In fact, had they known, they might have tapped her to help them with their history lessons, as Byrne witnessed several key events around World War II.
After working in a psychiatric hospital for five tough years, Byrne signed up to serve as an Army nurse when the United States entered the war. She traveled to England and then Wales for training; while in England, she had to flee to London’s Underground train system, or “The Tube,” to avoid the bombs during Germany’s Blitz.
She saw the results of active duty when she traveled by landing barge from England to Utah Beach, one of the sites of the D-Day invasion, to care for the wounded soldiers, both Allied Forces and POWs alike.
After D-Day, her unit was called to Paris and was there when the city was liberated from the Germans. She and her unit took over a hospital abandoned by the Germans, much of which was left destroyed. Although her working conditions were not ideal, Byrne managed to add a few more memories to her life’s scrapbook by seeing French General Charles de Gaulle, General George Patton as well as the likes of celebrities, such as Duke Ellington, Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Cagney, who came over to entertain the troops.
Putting her war adventures behind her, in 1948, Byrne married her husband Charles, whom she met on a blind date upon her return to Chicago. Together they had five children. Unfortunately, Byrne lost Charles at the age of 53. She was only 49 and had to figure out a way to make ends meet without him from that point on.
That’s where CPS came in. Her friend, Mary Lynch, then a Teacher-Nurse Supervisor at CPS, encouraged her to consider becoming a school nurse. Building on her training as a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing, Byrne went back to school to DePaul to earn her BSN. She became a teacher-nurse in 1962.
Her first assignments included Barry, Prosser, Monroe, Murphy, Avondale and Linne schools. It was a challenging caseload, but she felt that in this job she could make a difference in children’s lives by addressing their health problems and health-related impediments to learning. She soon became a favorite of staff and students. In fact, during her tenure with CPS, Byrne won two of CPS’s (now defunct) Gold Apple awards for teaching excellence.
As with most things, Byrne approached her job at work as a school nurse with gusto, becoming finely attuned to the needs of the students she saw. “If a student had a certain condition, my mother would make sure he was getting the proper treatment and follow-up,” she said.” My mother had an affinity for the needs of her students; she was able to pick up on things that others might have missed, such as whether a student had a slight hearing problem or even a heart murmur. She knew the impact that even the slightest disability could have on a child’s success in school. She cared for those students as if they were her own, even arranging for my uncles, who were dentists, to do free work on students who could not afford good dental care.”
Choosing from among many examples of the good care her mother took of her students, Eileen Jr. recounted a story about her mother noticing a child with bowed legs who was short for his age. Since she didn’t want to call attention to his height to hurt his feelings, Byrne waited until it was time to review his immunizations, and then asked him if he went to a private doctor or a clinic. He said he used to go to the University of Illinois.
Nurse Byrne then called the boy’s mother and asked her if she would take him back if she gave her a letter to take to the doctor. The mother agreed. In the letter, Byrne asked the doctor whether the boy needed any surgical or medical intervention, to which the doctor replied that both the boy and his little brother suffered from rickets, but that the boys no longer came to the clinic. Their mother had told him she could not afford the medications. However, the doctor told Byrne that since then he found out that he could obtain assistance for the family through the hospital’s social service department. In the note, he thanked Byrne for saving the two boys. That summer the doctor operated on the boy’s right leg and in the winter he operated on his left leg. Upon recovery, he was able to walk normally and appeared as if nothing had been the matter.
Byrne’s duties included overseeing school-based inoculations of students as well as follow-up from the annual vision and hearing tests. She even helped usher in the era of the Head Start program when it launched in the 1960s. In fact, she was part of the training film made for it. “My mom loved her job,” Eileen Jr. said. “And she was always looking for better ways of doing her job, which I think is what nurses do. I think that’s what makes nurses so special and sets them apart,” she noted.
For about 15 of her 22 years with the district, Byrne held down a second job working nights in a nursing home for financial reasons. Eileen Jr. claims that her mother never slept during this time, only taking catnaps when and where she could. “She gave up her bedroom altogether when we got a pool table. That’s where it went,” she said. “She wanted us to stay close to home for our entertainment, so the sacrifice was worth it to her.”
Before her health took a turn for the worse, she and Eileen Jr. would take off each year to places like Italy, France, Mexico, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and even exotic locales such as Morocco, where she rode a camel, and Thailand, where an elephant was her ride of choice.
While Eileen Byrne is gone, her spirit lives on in the many children she cared for and looked after as their school nurse, as well as in the work that the district’s school nurses carry on today. Her family can be very proud of her accomplishments.
CPS thanks all past and present school nurses for their dedication to the health and well-being of our students and, ultimately, to their success as healthy students in the classroom.
A Brief History of School Nurses:
On October 1, 1902, Lina Rogers Struthers was the first nurse to be placed in the New York City school system in a one month experiment to attempt to reduce health-related absenteeism. At the end of the month, the results were so promising that the New York City Board of Health continued her appointment. By December of that year, she was named Superintendent of School Nurses with a staff of 12 nurses. Two months later, 15 more nurses were hired. During the first year, health-related absenteeism was reduced by nearly 90 percent. As a result of the success of the experiment in New York, other large cities soon began hiring school nurses, including Los Angeles (1904), Boston (1905), Philadelphia (1908) and Chicago (1910).
According to the book “Working Without Uniforms,” the school nurse program in Chicago was started after the U.S. Public Health Service found that the Chicago Public Schools did not provide systematized and effective medical and nursing services. Madeline Roessler hired the first nine nurses in the program in 1951. The nurses were certified by the city as Teachers of Public School Health. In the 1970s their title changed from Teacher-Nurse to School Nurse when the state, rather than the city, regulated the certification process. Certification emphasized the teaching and public health responsibilities of school nurses. Requirements included licensure as a registered nurse, a baccalaureate degree, course work in education and public health, and an internship.
School nurses today have a wide array of knowledge on issues including disease prevention, chronic illness, and the overall health and wellness of their students and staff. Thank your school nurse today!