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GASN director Lynne Meadows on the growing need for school nurses

Lynne Meadows has worked hard to build a strong network of nurses in Fulton County schools.

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Lynne Meadows has worked hard to build a strong network of nurses in Fulton County schools.

Lynne Meadows was always a good student, and she's a lifelong resident of Atlanta. It's fitting that she became the student health service coordinator for Fulton County schools and director of the Georgia Association of School Nurses and has made good in both positions. But if it wasn't for a single, heart-wrenching night, her life's work might have been something different altogether.

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According to Meadows, most anyone who knows her knows this story. Her mother was 38 and had always been healthy. She had three girls, Meadows in 9th grade, her older sister a senior, her younger sister a fourth-grader. And then, her mom died –– suddenly and unexpectedly, so quickly that just Meadows and her dad were at the hospital. The nurses who were on site that night changed Meadows' life forever. "They were compassionate, they took care of things, they showed an incredible amount of empathy for our very young family," she says.

Before that, the energetic, knowledge-thirsty teen probably would have told you she aspired to be a medical doctor. But thrust into a medical crisis, "it was the nurses at the hospital who made such an impression on me. I made a decision that very night that if I grew up and went to college, I was going to pursue the nursing path. And I stuck true to that."

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Meadows earned a bachelor's degree from Queens College in Charlotte. She graduated in May and went to work in June at Grady Health. A month later she was assigned to a new concept: an adolescent unit. This was her first experience with leadership and the appeal of working on a new idea that can deeply affect lives. It was 1987. She was 21.

They worked eight-hour shifts, five days a week, and Meadows was soon selected to work the night shift. "At first I felt like kicking and screaming: Who would want to work night shift right out of college?" she says. But it ended up as what she calls "another divine intervention moment for me and the best thing that could have happened. During the night shift, you really take on a lot of responsibility, sharpening your clinical skills, your time management skills. "

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The experience "pushed my leadership," she recalls. Some of her co-workers at night were RNs, but many more were licensed, practical nurses. "They'd joke, 'You're the RN, you tell me,'" she says with a laugh. "That's the reason my leadership skills are what they are today –– that first experience, where we were all a team. It does not bother me one bit to say, 'I don't know, and I need you.' And those are some of my best colleague friends to this day."

Meadows had a heyday in 14 years at Grady. She matriculated through staff nurse, assistant head nurse, a staff development role, director of staff development and quality improvement for the ambulatory unit expansion, assistant vice president of patient care service –– essentially the vice president of nursing. She earned a Master of Science in Nursing from Georgia State University a few years in.

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Life was good. She got married, had a son, and then five years later, another boy. And she started feeling a tug in a different direction.

About that time, her younger son, age 6 months, fell from a baby bouncer and had a traumatic brain injury. "I had so many wonderful medical and nursing colleagues, and the blessing for him was that he didn't have long-term effects," she says. "It could have been a totally different outcome. We did some unorthodox things."

One of those was telling his surgeon that as they were a family of faith, they were hoping he would pray with them before the surgery. "He said, 'Okay, I don't have long,'" Meadows remembers. But after they prayed and the surgeon departed, he came right back, so quickly she was frightened something had gone wrong. Instead, the doctor told her and her husband, "I want you to know, I heard your prayer. He is not my child but I will treat him as my child,'" Meadows remembers. "I knew my son was in good hands."

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The feeling that she should move on from this dream job intensified because Meadows' older son was getting ready to enter first grade. "I kept thinking, 'I've missed a lot, being at the hospital.' But I loved everything about GHS, loved having gotten to that level as a nurse."

She can't forget going to a women's retreat with her church and praying about this decision of how to balance her work and her family. "I'm not saying I got an answer right then and there, but it had been on my heart and I prayed," she says.

A few weeks later, she was scanning the Fulton County website looking for a school where she could enroll her older son. And she saw the county was looking for a masters-prepared nurse to create its school nurse health services program. "I looked and thought, 'Awesome, there is the answer to my prayer,'" Meadows says.

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Her assistant at the time, Bonnie Ramey, who now works as her assistant at Fulton County schools, kept telling her, "'Girl, you are not going anywhere.' And there were only 3-5 days to submit and I was telling myself, 'You'll never find your transcript in time.'"

But she did get all the paperwork together and then interviewed with a roomful of executives, those working at the level she herself was used to. "I kept telling myself, 'I've led 2,000 nurses at one of the largest teaching hospitals; surely to goodness I can do this?'" Meadows recalls.

Back at the office, Ramey told her, "Someone called you about a job. Did you apply?"

This new initiative was part of Governor Barnes' approach to spending some tobacco settlement money putting RNs to work in the schools. There was "nothing here in place, nothing!" Meadows recalls. "I was hired and seven registered nurses. I was given a small area to work, a legal pad and a pen and told to go forth and conquer."

They were tasked with creating a program for 78,000 kids in 90 schools. Meadows told her direct reports, "If we concentrate on where we are currently, we will never be able to get where we want to go because it will seem too big and too unattainable. Instead, let's start with the end in mind: We will have developed a school health services program that will serve the children and be renowned and revered around the country."

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Fast-forwarding 19 years, there are 23 RNs and full-time clinical assistants at all 106 Fulton County schools, trained by the RNs to deliver health services to some 98,000 students. All the staff and Meadows herself are working like Trojans, she says, "methodically and intentionally and still with the end in sight."

They work in an environment that seemingly grows more challenging by the day. "The number of kids we see nowadays with more challenging health care issues has changed. Nineteen years ago, we rarely saw students with diabetes. There's also a sharp difference in the chronic illnesses school nurses now manage."

Despite growing up without a mom after the ninth grade, Meadows says she's always had awesome support: "My whole family growing up, my husband, the nursing colleagues I work with every day and the ones I work with on the school nurse association board. It's a privilege and an honor to represent Georgia and be able to serve my colleagues as a voice at the state and national level."

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She's not as busy as she was when she was a vice president at a hospital. But her duties can still extend to assisting a school nurse with a 911 call from the phone in her car as she drives to a second meeting, or returning emails from colleagues at 1:30 a.m. "If I have to be awake at 1 a.m. to answer the occasional email, that's what this privilege means right now," she says.

It also means raising her voice to debunk myths. "That whole notion –– all school nurses do is bandaids –– is so antiquated and so far from the reality. Just like any other nurses who work in a specialty, we utilize our education, critical thinking skills and clinical competencies every day."

And school nurses provide the care that allows students to benefit from the academic environment. "If kids don't' feel well, all the smart boards and technology in the world won't benefit them," Meadows says.

She is still guided by that night her mother passed. "I decided to be a nurse, but more than that, I made a commitment that I was going to be the best nurse I could be in any role," she says. "Because we depended on nurses that night."

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