BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Peggy McCarter, the nurse at Demarest Elementary School, will retire this month. She has been a registered nurse for 40 years and a school nurse for 17 years, working all that time at Demarest.
McCarter, who grew up in West Milford, attended Caldwell College, where she received a B.A. in biology; she earned a B.A. in nursing from William Paterson College and master’s degree in teaching from Marygrove College.
According to McCarter, students nowadays have more medical concerns than they did when she started her work at Demarest, saying in an interview in her office last week, “I’ve had children with colonoscopies, diabetes, food allergies; children with tube feedings and medicines through gastric tubes.”
She pointed to a cloth “apron” attached to the door to her room. It had dozens of pouches, each one containing a box of epinephrine, medicine used to alleviate the effects of food allergies and asthma attacks. At one time, she said she had only five or six boxes of the medicine and stored them in a nearby metal file cabinet. She tapped the cabinet with her hand.
“Now, there are many, many more,” she said.
McCarter does not know why there are now more children with medical concerns, but speculated about the student population at Demarest. When she began, there were fewer than 400 students, but now there are 550, she said. But not every student she sees for medical reasons.
“Sometimes, a child needs a little TLC,” she said. “When they do, they go to the nurse. I usually take their temperature, have them sit for five minutes and then they go back to class. They needed a break.”
As one would imagine, record-keeping is a big part of a nurse’s job, and McCarter has a folder for every Demarest student. But if a child is obese, that is not noted in the record because the state does not require it.
“Parents know if kids are overweight,” she said.
While some things have changed, parents still call just as frequently as when she started in the district, just to find out how their children are feeling.
“We’ve had children with broken bones, asthma attacks and diabetes with high blood pressure,” she said. “Last week we sent a child to the hospital for stitches.”
McCarter has also had to deal with teachers fainting as well as illnesses related to pregnancy.
She said she originally became a nurse because there were not many other options.
“When I graduated from high school,” she said, “a woman became either a nurse or a teacher.”
There were no nurses in her family, McCarter said, but plenty of teachers.
“Maybe I was rebelling,” she said. “I was always science oriented. I was going to be a biologist but there were no jobs. So I went back to school for nursing.”
Being a school nurse has been a good job, she said, and is for those able to work on their own.
“You don’t have the luxury of talking to another nurse during a crisis like you would in a hospital,” she said.
Her school nursing certification included teaching health but she does not do that often.
“The school population is too big,” she said. “I don’t have enough time.”
But McCarter said she teaches every day in her office.
“They’re little lessons,” she said. “Like wash your hands and blow your nose.”
McCarter said she will miss a lot about Demarest. When former students come back to visit, she is pleased to learn of their success, but does not accept offers to be friends with them on Facebook.
She does not have any plans right now for her retirement. Even so, she said she is ready to go.
“I’m done,” she said. “I think you know when you’re ready to retire. I’ll sleep late and work in my garden.”
McCarter lives “down neck” in Newark, the area beyond Penn Station and volunteers every other weekend at St. John’s Hospital, in Newark, and may add more days to that schedule.
“At some point in time, I will be leaving New Jersey,” she said. “It’s expensive here. I have sisters in Delaware and Virginia and brothers in Arizona.”