Debra King, the school nurse for Harford Technical High School, was taken by complete surprise Wednesday afternoon upon entering the school’s media center and learning she had been named Maryland’s School Nurse of the Year for 2019-2020.
“I did not expect this at all,” said King, who has been a nurse in Harford County Public Schools for 17 years, 15 of them at Harford Tech.
She had applied for the Maryland Association of School Health Nurses’ honor but was still surprised to be selected as the recipient.
“It was a true honor, it really is,” she said.
King is the second Harford County Public Schools nurse to receive the top honor from MASHN; Debra Kauffman, of Fountain Green Elementary School, was named Nurse of the Year for 2017.
King, 64, is a registered nurse and nationally-certified school nurse. She worked as a school nurse for five years in her home state of New Jersey — she grew up in Pennsauken, N.J. — before moving to Maryland with her family 17 years ago. She spent her first two years with HCPS as the school nurse for Havre de Grace Elementary School before going to Harford Tech.
The high school, which has more than 1,000 students, draws students from around Harford County for its multiple vocational and technical programs, including carpentry, auto repair, cyber security, even health care.
Principal Joe Collins called King "the epitome of what a school nurse should be,” praising her professionalism, “great relationship skills” and “really huge dose of common sense” in her interactions with students, parents and school staff.
“I’ve not had a situation she has not been able to manage,” Collins said.
King, who was named the school system’s nurse of the year in 2010, listed her multiple duties, including providing immunizations to students, hearing and vision screenings, caring for students who are ill or injured, coordinating care for students who have medical issues such as diabetes, seizures, allergies and asthma, supporting students with mental health issues, as well as teaching students and staff health care techniques such as CPR and using a defibrillator on people having a cardiac emergency.
King teaches “hands only” CPR and use of AEDs, or Automated External Defibrillators, to ninth graders, as knowledge of both is a graduation requirement.
“If someone becomes unresponsive, they would be able to help save a life,” she said.
King, who worked as a hospital nurse for 10 years before becoming a school nurse, said the job of school nursing has not changed over the 17 years she has been in the field, but today there are more students seeking care for conditions such as diabetes, severe allergies and asthma, as well as mental health services.
“The number of visits in the health suite have increased, with student concerns,” she said.
King noted she is often part of a team of professionals at Harford Tech and in the school system, including teachers, school counselors and psychologists, administrators, athletic coaches and student services officials. Those teams work on matters such as student mental health support, caring for students with special medical needs, helping students recover from serious injuries, teaching CPR, safety and security and providing orientation to new school nurses.
“We help students stay healthy and safe so that they can attend school and learn while they’re here,” King said.
Caring for kids
There are 72 full- and part-time school nurse positions in Harford County, according to Mary Nasuta, supervisor of health services for HCPS. Nasuta presented the Nurse of the Year honor to King on Wednesday.
Nasuta is also the Maryland state director for the National Association of School Health Nurses and past president of the Maryland school nurse association. She praised Harford’s school nurses as “just amazing nurses who really care about kids.”
Nasuta said King qualified as Maryland’s school nurse of the year because she has “a ton of experience” and goes “above and beyond” her duties with initiatives such as teaching CPR and coordinating Harford Tech’s annual blood drives for the American Red Cross.
She also praised King’s successes in the area of case management for students’ health, mentoring other Harford school nurses as well as nursing students at Stevenson University in Baltimore County, plus her initiatives within the behind-the-scenes work that goes into school nursing such as standardizing paperwork, improving communication between nurses and parents and outreach to students who speak English as a second language, as well as those students’ families.
“That is where school nurses shine, being able to effectively change lives by promoting [students’] best health and wellness,” Nasuta said.
She also praised King as a “premier health teacher” as she helps students take charge of their own health, such as encouraging them to get a better night’s sleep.
“We work in making students good health care consumers for a lifetime,” Nasuta said.
Harford County becomes home
King, who lives in Bel Air, has been married for 40 years and has four children and four grandchildren. She and her family moved to Maryland when her husband, who works in sales for a company that distributes vehicle engines and transmissions to Ford dealerships in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania, was offered a promotion.
She said her family “could have lived anywhere in Maryland,” but chose Harford County because of the great public schools and the high school swim program. Her oldest two children graduated from high school in New Jersey, and her two youngest graduated from C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air.
King has also been the head coach of the Mustangs swim team for 14 years, logging 185 wins, zero losses and two girls’ state titles in 2012 and 2014.
She said Harford Tech is “just a great school” and praised the many technical programs offered. She provides skills testing in blood pressure and pulse screenings for Tech nursing students, and she recalled students made floral arrangements and invitations for two of her daughters’ weddings.
Her youngest daughter has been accepted to school to become a physician’s assistant and will start next May, King said.
Mentoring the next generation
Kayleigh Russell, a senior at Stevenson who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing, was on hand for the award presentation to King. Russell will work alongside King at Harford Tech each Wednesday through December.
Russell, who was on her second day working with King, said she has been attending meetings regarding care for students with medical needs and treating students who visit the Harford Tech health suite.
“I haven’t been with her long, but I can’t wait to see what else there is to learn,” Russell said.
Russell said she wants to work with the “pediatric population,” but she is not certain about which specific field yet.
“After working with Ms. King, I’ll definitely be considering school nursing,” she said.