School nurse goes on to start clinic for uninsured
By Jennifer Mifflin For Sun-Times Media
Responder: Jan Wilson, CEO of NorthShore Health Centers in Portage, Ind., helped found the clinic to offer health care to uninsured students. | Supplied photo
Jan Wilson, 59, would have never predicted she would go from being a teen mom struggling to raise two children to being a successful health care advocate and the CEO of NorthShore Health Centers in Portage.
A self-described late-bloomer, Wilson graduated from college when her daughter graduated from high school.
“Being a teenage mother is a tough road to travel,” Wilson said. “I was very lucky to have good children. We made a deal with each other that we would be partners: If they helped me by doing well in school and doing chores around the house, I would in turn pay for their education.”
Today, Wilson’s two oldest children are 44 and 42 and work as a school principal and an attorney. She also has two younger children, age 19 and 18. “That takes people aback, she says with a laugh, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Learning the ropes
After graduating from Indiana University in 1986 with a BS in nursing, Wilson worked in various hospital and clinic settings until she was offered a position to work as a school nurse at Portage Township Schools.
“I reluctantly took the job. In my ignorance, I didn’t think school nurses did too much. I thought it was a lot of first aid. I took the job because it would offer me more of a work/life balance so I could be home more with my kids. I greatly underestimated the role school nurses play in kids’ health, and it turned out to be one of the most challenging positions I ever encountered,” conceded Wilson, who served as the health services director for the district, overseeing all 12 of its schools.
Wilson said school nurses work as an island without having the benefit of a team of doctors and practitioners to confer with.
“It’s you and you alone. You are the first responder and the one who has to make all the decisions. It can be overwhelming,” she said.
In addition to attending to medical emergencies and sick students, the school nurse is tasked with processing all vaccination records, staff training, implementing state safety guidelines, executing protocols for children with disabilities, and administering daily care to students who have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes.
“You have to make sure children get their medication. Some students had catheters that needed to be checked. People overlook how much the school nurse factors into student wellness,” said Wilson.
Seeds of a clinic
Wilson explained that Portage schools have a strict attendance policy, where after a certain amount of absences a doctor’s note is required; otherwise, students are penalized.
“Rightly so,” she said, “but I started noticing there were kids who were legitimately sick but couldn’t see the doctor because they were either uninsured or their parents had to work and couldn’t take the time off to take them. Sometimes the kids would get so overwhelmed with their grades being penalized, they’d drop out.
“Uninsured students don’t visit doctors for wellness visits and checkups. Oftentimes people [insured or not] will use the ER for non-emergency conditions like the flu or strep because their doctor’s office is closed. Hospital emergency rooms are not the right venue for treating basic sickness,” Wilson said.
That’s when Wilson and her fellow colleagues came together to form in 1997 the Portage Township Community Health Care Clinic, where sick students from Portage schools could receive appropriate care and then return to class.
“It was great for our entire student body. They were able to get the care they needed without having to miss school. This significantly reduced absentee rates,” she said. Wilson, who left the Portage Township Schools in 1998 to devote her time to the clinic, also instituted a teen clinic, which provided services such as prenatal and parenting classes for expectant teen mothers.
In order to reach more people in need of its services, the clinic changed its name in 2003 to NorthShore Health Centers and now has three health care locations and a dental center: The Stacy McKay Health & Education Center in Portage; Scottsdale NorthShore Center; Lake Station NorthShore Center and the Dr. Fernando Rivera Dental Center in Lake Station. Extended urgent care hours are offered at the Scottsdale and Lake Station centers. Family practice, OB/GYN, pediatrics, diagnostic, radiology, behavioral health and dental are all offered to address patients’ physical and emotional needs.
NorthShore serves the uninsured, underinsured and people on Medicaid or holders of private insurance. Office visits and services are provided for a nominal fee or on sliding scale based on income.
“Just because someone is uninsured doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to receive great care at a clean facility. Our doctors, nurses, practitioners and office staff provide the best medical care and service. It’s a calling to them — they want to help people,” she said.
For Wilson, overseeing the clinic and making a difference in families’ lives gives her tremendous satisfaction.
“I’m a truly blessed person. This is what I was always meant to do. I especially love helping kids. I relate well to them and enjoy making a difference,” Wilson said.
Wilson credits her parents and grandmother as being the biggest influences on her life.
“They were loving, good people,” recalled Wilson. And it was her grandmother, who especially instilled virtues of keeping life in perspective, accepting people for who they are and above all, being nonjudgmental.
“People have a right to health care regardless if they have insurance or not. And for children, being uninsured doesn’t affect just their health, it affects their education. If a child can’t afford to see a doctor to get treated for an illness, or even vaccinated, they won’t be allowed in school. If they can’t get a sports physical they can’t play sports. Keeping kids out of school is a disaster for the child, the parents and the community,” she said.
For more information about NorthShore Health Centers, visit them online at www.northshorehealth.org or call 219/763-8112.