PULSE: Fighting the flood

By Laura Raines
, Pulse editor

On a typical day, school nurse Sherry Farmer sees about 40 children in her clinic at Clarkdale Elementary School in Austell. She dispenses daily medications for chronic conditions, patches up scrapes, checks temperatures and doles out tender loving care to her young patients.

When torrential rains caused extensive flooding in more than 15 metro Atlanta counties in late September, normalcy was washed away. All 442 of her students were at risk and needed the calm presence and compassion of their school nurse, whose emergency-preparedness training kicked in.

Flood waters nearly reach the roof Clarkdale Elementary School in Austell. PHIL SKINNER, pskinner@ajc.com

Flood waters nearly reach the roof Clarkdale Elementary School in Austell. PHIL SKINNER, pskinner@ajc.com

“Monday [Sept. 21] started as a normal school day, only it was raining again,” said Farmer, RN, BSN.

When staff members noticed water under the trailers in back of the school, they brought the children, equipment and books into the main building where they thought it was safe.

“The floor of the trailers had flooded before, but water had never come into the school building,” Farmer said.

But it kept raining and the water kept rising. Roads were closing around Cobb County.

“I had volunteers watching the creek and measuring the water out back with a stick,” said Marjorie Bickerstaff, Clarkdale principal. “When firefighters showed up to help a family in the neighborhood, I went out to talk with them. wI came back in and called transportation immediately for buses to come get our children out.”

“Fortunately, buses were waiting at nearby Garrett Middle School, which was dismissing early,” Farmer said. “The drivers immediately answered our call and were here in 15 minutes.”

“By then, the parking lot was flooding and every member of my staff had kicked into mother mode,” Bickerstaff said.

The plan was to calmly evacuate the students one class at a time.

“I was standing ankle-deep in water and told them to go ahead and jump into the puddle with me,” she said.

“Some of the younger ones joked that they were getting to go swimming, but the older ones had a better grasp of the situation and were upset. A few were crying, and the nearest teacher would comfort them before hurrying them along,” Farmer said.

Teachers formed a human chain and soon switched to two lines to board the children as quickly as possible, said Sally Vandenbos, RN, a consulting nurse to Clarkdale Elementary.

“The water was almost knee-high on some of the teachers by then, so you can imagine where it would have been on the younger children,” Vandebos said.

“It happened so fast,” Farmer said. “Now when people say water can rise quickly, I know what they’re talking about.

“I don’t know what we would have done if the buses hadn’t come. We were all so relieved to get the children out safely.”

Saving records and meds

“As the buses left, our school nurse [Farmer] kicked into nurse mode,” Bickerstaff said. “I saw her coming out of the building carrying our Titmus [vision-screening] machine, which I thought was strange at the time.”

With water streaming into the building, Farmer went back in to retrieve students’ medical records, daily medications and first-aid supplies.

“I knew my diabetic child and teacher would need their medications, and the children with allergies might need an epinephrine injection,” Farmer said. “Those with asthma would need their inhalers.

“I needed something to carry everything in, so I took the vision-screening machine out of its suitcase and put it on the highest shelf, where I figured it would be safe.”

Farmer never expected the building to flood to the ceiling.

“I thought we might be out a few days while they cleaned the carpets,” she said.

After rescuing the records, equipment and medication, Farmer drove to Garrett Middle School, where she treated students’ bumps and bruises and a bee sting. She waited until most of the children had been picked up before she headed home to her three sons, who had been picked up from their schools by her husband.

“I hugged them so tight,” she said. “We were so blessed not to be flooded. Many of our teachers and students lost not only their school, but their homes.”

Seeking normalcy
The 442 Clarkdale students have been located to new classrooms at Compton Elementary in Powder Springs and Austell Intermediate School, where they have been warmly welcomed.

“It’s amazing how tough kids are. The first day, one little girl told me matter-of-factly, ‘I used to be a walker, but I can’t walk anymore.’ The devastation just breaks your heart,’ ” Farmer said.

Most of the neighborhoods surrounding the school were underwater, displacing many families.

“But when school reopened on Thursday, and the kids got to their [new] classrooms and saw their teachers and friends, their eyes lit up like magic,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible, and we’re back to learning. I’m learning the most.”

During the first week after the flood, Farmer went back and forth between the two schools so her young patients would see a familiar face.

“It’s hard for the faculty and students to be split up. We’re like a tightly knit family, but we’ve learned that Clarkdale isn’t a building — it’s a spirit, and that spirit is stronger than ever,” she said.

A school nurse for only 18 months, Farmer has already weathered a swine flu outbreak in August and a flood in September. But having come from WellStar Kennestone Hospital’s pediatric emergency room, not much fazes her.

“It’s been a tense year,” she said. “I love school nursing, and the best part about it is the kids. They’re my reason to be here.

“Since the flood, I tell them, ‘I’m your nurse, and when we get a new building, I’ll still be your nurse.’ ”

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