by Nat Frothingham
MARSHFIELD — For the past 10 years, Alice Day has been the school nurse for the 400 or so students at Twinfield Union School. Twinfield is the pre-kindergarten through high school shared between Plainfield and Marshfield.
Improbable as it may seem, from as far back as Day can remember as a little girl growing up in the Scottish Highlands north of Inverness, she knew what she wanted to do in life. “Ever since I was two years old, I wanted to be a nurse,” she told The Bridge. “My dad tells this story,” she continued. “As a two-year-old girl, when my dad became sick, I picked some daisies and put them at his bedside.”
As a five-year-old child, Day remembers collecting shoe boxes and making little shoe-box beds for her stuffed animals. “It was set up like a ward. I would go down the line, take their temperatures and make sure they were comfortable. I had my own small hospital unit.”
Day never wanted to be a doctor. “I knew even then that doctors don’t get to spend as much time with patients — I wanted to spend time with the patients.”
After finishing the equivalent of high school, Day took a gap year and worked at a boarding school for physically disabled students. “Another young woman and I provided care for a group of 8- to 11-year-old boys in wheelchairs — all physically disabled. We gave them breakfast and made sure they got to school. There was a dorm building and a school building.” When the boys were in school, the two young women got a break, but in the evening they were back working with them at various activities. “We had a school nurse there,” said Day, “and I knew that I was planning to be a nurse. I guess she cemented the idea that this is what I wanted to do.”
An impressive chain of work and study followed: three years of hospital-based training at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. After obtaining her nurse’s diploma from the Royal Infirmary, Day didn’t feel ready to join the workforce, so she applied to be a summer camp nurse with Camp America and found herself working in High Falls, New York, not far from Woodstock.
“That was my summer job — they were mentally and physically disabled kids — some were both. It was long hours and hard work — bathing them, helping them get around, special medications, mood disorders, a lot of ‘med’ rounds.”
That summer, Day met Michael Jermyn and they married. For more than 10 years afterward, Day worked full-time at a teaching hospital in New York State while also going to school part-time to earn her Bachelor of Nursing degree. After her children were born, she and Jermyn moved to Vermont.
In Vermont, she worked in the mother-baby unit at Central Vermont Hospital. Later she took a job at Norwich University in the infirmary and also began teaching in the University’s Nursing Department. In addition, she started and eventually completed a master’s degree at the University of Vermont. “I was working full-time at the Norwich Infirmary, I was teaching in the nursing program and then I became a UVM student. I knew something had to give,” she said about this pressure-packed period.
She gave up teaching and took a job as a substitute school nurse at Union Elementary School in Montpelier. When she saw the notice for a school nurse at Twinfield, she applied and was offered the job.
“I don’t want to say that first year was rough, because it was great, but it was also a transition,” she said, “And the biggest transition was not being part of a medical team. You are the only health care professional in the building and everyone — adults and kids — comes to you with health concerns.”
“I’m still smiling,” she interjected. “It was great. But at some point you realize that you can’t address everyone’s needs. And the kids come first. It’s totally about the kids,” she said again. “A lot of what I was facing was organizational. My task was to make the biggest impact for the most kids within the system,” she explained.
As school nurse at Twinfield, Day often sees 50 to 60 kids a day. She has also developed some smart strategies for getting the kids themselves, when indicated, to take responsibility for their own health. In her nurse’s office, Day has put together a ‘self-care’ health care station consisting of 13 clear jars with medical supplies such as gauze, tape, antibiotic ointment and Vaseline in them. The kids can help themselves, but Day is there with her nursing skills to make a difference.
“The younger the kid, the more vulnerable they are,” she says. She sees herself as that calm person who can make a child feel loved and appreciated and valued. “You can instantly make them feel better by giving them a cold pack and cleaning a wound and putting on a bandage — and they leave the room smiling.”
Day discussed with The Bridge some of the more difficult situations facing children and young people at Twinfield and at schools like it across Vermont, where — all too often — more than half the students come from financially disadvantaged families that qualify by their income level for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.
“Can you make it financially,” Day asked, “when you have four kids and the adult is working at minimum wage? Or if you are a single parent? It could be they’re barely making the rent. Then something happens, so you don’t make the rent. Or you get behind. All of a sudden the parent can’t get to work. Or there’s no paid or sick leave. They get even more behind. They run out of heat.”
“We have some kids,” said Day, “whose families are very economically disadvantaged and socially isolated. Add in some substance abuse and they’re not going anywhere. And the kids are not going anywhere. The kids are not staying after school. We have a high population that is really struggling,” Day said.
And yet Day refuses to go negative. “I am always optimistic,” she said. “The resiliency some of these kids show is inspiring. Most of these kids get up every day and despite the odds, they are able to make it to school on time. We have busing for all students. And they for the most part are attentive and follow directions and demonstrate expected behaviors, despite not sleeping well the night before or being worried about not having heat or whatever.”
What gives her particular hope is seeing some of those kids whose families are facing hardship break out of the mold and persist, achieve and even perhaps go to college. “We have a mentoring program with teen and community mentors,” she said. “These mentors are people in the community who spend time with some of those kids. We have more than 50 matches in our mentoring program. And we have a lady who comes to the school from the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and helps the kids do their college applications — often (these are) kids who are the first in their family to apply for college.”
Speaking about Alice Day, Twinfield Principal Mark Mooney said:
“She hits the ground running every day. Her energy is infectious. I so appreciate her. The kids love her. She really teaches kids how to manage their own health, how to keep yourself healthy every day. She doesn’t do her thing with the door shut. She’s totally involved with school committees. I can’t say enough good about her. This is a very demanding job. She does it with a smile every day. She’s one of my superstars.”