By Cameron Small
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
Those who make the choice to work in such an environment are not doing it for fame, or high salaries — they do it because they love their students and helping people.
A living example of this would be Rachel Jackson, a school nurse at Walpole High.
Nurse Jackson has risen to become a known figure in the cystic fibrosis community through her work and advocacy for students with cystic fibrosis (CF); until recently, there were three students at Walpole High with the disease.
“Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease,” explains Nurse Jackson. “It affects mainly the pancreas, the GI [gastro-intestinal] system and then the respiratory system. So basically, there’s a shift in the salt and water content in the body, and it affects the way that food is digested because the pancreas isn’t making the appropriate enzymes. And then secondary to that, there’s a buildup of a mucus in the body, and that mucus tends to find its way to the lungs, and that’s where it likes to live. And then it impedes on breathing, eating, and sometimes people will get diabetes, because of the pancreas’ involvement.”
Research has allowed scientists and medical professionals to learn more about the disease. “Research has come a long way, but there’s so much that they’re still learning. About fifteen, sixteen years ago, we learned that people have certain bacterias. And if that bacteria is given to another person with CF, it can be deadly. It [the bacteria] is very detrimental to them, and it will impede on their health tremendously, and they’ll eventually pass from it. So that’s where the kind of dilemma came into effect at the high school, because we were going to have the three kids.”
This bacteria is not deadly or harmful to someone who does not have cystic fibrosis. However, were the three students with CF to share it, it could have been deadly.
Like teachers, who prepare their lessons and upcoming school years, nurses also plan ahead — and knowing that three students with cystic fibrosis were going to be at Walpole High, Jackson reached out to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for support.
The Foundation had suggestions about what to do with one student with cystic fibrosis, and in rarer cases for two. Three students with CF, however, was not heard of prior to Jackson reaching out for support. According to Jackson, the Foundation said: “When you figure it out, let us know.”
Undeterred, Nurse Jackson developed an action plan for the students. It involved working with guidance counselors about scheduling, dedicating specific staircases and bathrooms for each of the students, and making sure the entire staff was on the same page about potential ramifications for lapses. The plan also included information for substitutes and emergency procedures.
The success of the plan and its implementation raised Jackson to celebrity status in the CF community.
Jackson wrote a piece for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation about the plan and the implementation of it, and nurses across the country started reaching out. “I would say I probably got 50 emails from different people, different nurses all over the United States, with ‘Can I have a copy of the plan?’ ‘How did you do this?’” Jackson recounts.
From the published article, Jackson’s partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation continued. Much of Jackson’s work with them is educational in nature. “I’ve done some services for them [Cystic Fibrosis Foundation] via Zoom, because it was California and New York to educate some of the schools that were having trouble with kind of grasping the idea. They weren’t understanding the seriousness of these kids being together. I guess one of the moms came to pick up her sick student and he was sitting in the office, but literally right next to the other student with cystic fibrosis.”
Jackson’s work is so popular and helpful to other nurses that she was invited to speak at the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference in Philadelphia this November. “Honestly, if I had to put a number on it, it’s hundreds, maybe even close to a thousand people that have reached out for the templates and just any information. I always send my template for the action plan, my info sheet, my consent sheet, and then a link to the movie. And it’s just assisted people from all over the world, as far away as Australia.”
The movie Jackson refers to was a 2018 Walpole High Film Festival documentary about cystic fibrosis and the students. The film is called “Six Feet of Separation” and can be viewed at www.tinyurl.com/sixfeetwalpole
Despite the students with CF having graduated from Walpole, Jackson is still a great advocate for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and donating to it if possible. Donations to the foundation have led to there being modular plans, which Jackson describes as “medication-based medical plans geared just towards them.” While a cure remains elusive due to the genetic nature of the disease and the ethical questions surrounding it, the modular plans help make cystic fibrosis more manageable.
When not working at Walpole High, Jackson continues to help the community in various ways, including working with the VNA and with local hospice services. Outside of those, Jackson volunteers with Golden Opportunities for Independence, which helps train service dogs for people with disabilities.
Nurse Jackson shows that there is so much more to school staff than just the educators. Schools are not simply providing an education for students, but a community resource in a multitude of different ways.
Thank you Nurse Jackson, and thank you to all the support staff at our schools working so hard to ensure the safety and education of our students.