Alumna named school nurse of the year

Tessa McIlraith
Tessa McIlraith. Savannah Halverson photo

Tessa McIlraith, who discovered her passion for school nursing in her Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at the University of Washington Bothell, was named state nurse of the year by the School Nurse Organization of Washington.

It was a classmate who suggested she would be an excellent school nurse, and it was the School of Nursing & Health Studies that enlarged the skill set for McIlraith, who had previously worked at a private surgery center.

“The thing I loved about the UW Bothell program is it really did bring a lot of the leadership and public health perspective that you need for school nursing,” said McIlraith, who received her BSN in 2013.

After graduation, McIlraith started working as a substitute nurse in the Burlington-Edison School District, went full time in 2014 and became the district’s school nurse in 2016. She’s directly responsible for Burlington-Edison High School and the bilingual West View Elementary, two buildings in Burlington with about 1,400 students. She also supervises two other school nurses, with an overall responsibility for the district’s 3,200 students in six buildings.

Award-winning work

Superintendent Laurel Browning said McIlraith is a worthy recipient of state-level recognition for consistently supporting the health and well-being of students and for representing the district as she serves on statewide committees.

“She is a patient listener and a constant advocate for students’ health interests, specifically the needs of traditionally underrepresented populations,” Browning said.

The award also recognizes McIlraith’s work as the legislative chair for the state school nurse organization. She’s going into a fourth session with lawmakers, serving as an advocate for funding school nurses and related school issues. She additionally serves on committees with the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction on social-emotional learning and school-based health care.

“I fell into some things I really loved. It’s my passion and drive to advocate for our underserved schools,” said McIlraith, who recently completed a master’s degree in mental health and wellness through an online program with Grand Canyon University.

Nurse Mac

School nursing is not as simple as slapping Band-Aids on the scuffed knees of students, who call McIlraith either Nurse Tessa or Nurse Mac.

“The overarching purpose for a school nurse,” she said, “is to build care plans for our students who have health issues that could be life-threatening or require accommodation for their educational settings.”

She collaborates with teachers and other staff to make sure that students with acute and chronic illness or injury as well as students with disabilities all have what they need to be safe and present at school. She trains staff on how to deal with seizures, anaphylaxis and diabetes. As part of her emergency planning, she’s also implementing programs for opioid overdoses and, of course, dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Most classes are still remote, as the district awaits guidance from public health officials for a safe school reopening. But there are currently part-time life skills programs at two schools for small groups of students. And, the youngest students in kindergarten through second grade went back to school part-time in mid-October in small cohorts.

“It’s really nice to see them again,” McIlraith said.

Bothell on my mind

Away from work, McIlraith lives on a farm with her family, which includes her husband, a high school senior and a sixth-grader. The family raises cows and pigs. A retired therapy horse and a rescue horse are “my decompression,” McIlraith added.

McIlraith said it was UW Bothell that turned her nursing career into a nursing passion. She recalls classes from which she still draws. A course on how music impacts health and healing, for example, led her to collaborate last year on a presentation with a choir teacher.

“UW Bothell is still very much part of my practice,” she said.

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