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Face of the Week: Nurse Brett Appelbaum of Lansdowne High School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. "Face of the Week" introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

Face of the Week: Nurse Brett Appelbaum of Lansdowne High School

Not long after Brett Appelbaum began working at Lansdowne High School, in August 2016, a colleague approached him and quietly pointed out a young man in her class, a senior. “He needs glasses,” she told Appelbaum, the school’s new nurse. “Can you help?”

The student had migrated years ago to Lansdowne from another country. During his family’s arduous trek, the young man had faced swimming across a deep river. Put your glasses in your pack, his father told him. But midstream during the crossing, the boy began to drown; only by discarding his backpack – and his glasses – was he able to survive.  “It was three years before anyone noticed he didn’t have the glasses he needed,” Appelbaum says.

Nurse Brett, as he’s known through the hallways at Lansdowne, immediately got to work. But traditional ways to obtain glasses didn’t work because the student lacked needed paperwork. So Appelbaum found another way, using a health grant to pay for the glasses he’d ordered at a local Walmart. “The main thing,” he says, “was finding a way to get it done.”

Appelbaum recalls seeing a smile break briefly across the young man’s face when he received the glasses, but there was little celebration. Just part of the job, says Nurse Brett.

Making a difference in the lives of many

Yes and no, say others who have watched Nurse Brett’s first months at Lansdowne with excitement and pride. One of just four male nurses in Baltimore County Public Schools, Nurse Brett’s enthusiasm and commitment are already making a difference in the lives of many, according to his colleagues.  

“This is a great nurse,” says Deborah Somerville, coordinator of the BCPS Office of Health Services and Nurse Brett’s supervisor. “Not only has he reduced health suite visits by probably half, he’s doing the right work. You can see that he really cares about the students, and because of this, they trust him. He has a broad view of the school nurse’s role and understands that it’s more than clinical care that makes a difference.”

Adds Lansdowne Principal Ken Miller, “Brett is a great addition to the Lansdowne staff.  He has gone out of his way to understand the needs of our students and to make connections in and out of school to help provide a positive and stable atmosphere.”  

Were it not for the medical scrubs he wears, a visitor might be hard-pressed to pick Nurse Brett from among the students he serves. He’s young – 27 and a 2007 graduate of Franklin High School – and his unlined face is open and approachable.

His path to nursing

But in a literal sense, Appelbaum has packed a lot of living into his 27 years. Growing up in Owings Mills, he thought graphic design or audio engineering might be viable career options. But after a summer job as a pool lifeguard and high school courses in biology and paramedic medicine, his interests began to shift. 

Especially satisfying was his work as a community center lifeguard; he assisted plenty of swimmers, and at age 16, his lifesaving efforts won him a national “Hero” award from the American Red Cross. His path was set – he would enter the health professions as a way of helping others.

After studies at The Community College of Baltimore County and online from the Chamberlain College of Nursing, Appelbaum took a position at an area nursing home as assistant director of nursing. After two years, he joined the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center, working in the “intense” environment of the neuro-trauma unit where he tended daily to a new assortment of gunshot, car crash, and stroke victims.

Keeping healthy people healthy

The job was “great experience,” Nurse Brett says, but he sought to get back to “community health” – the kind of non-acute care focused on keeping healthy people healthy. A friend suggested applying to BCPS, and soon he was patrolling the halls of Lansdowne High, checking in on his diabetic students or perhaps just asking others how they feel that day.

“I don’t think what I do is normal,” Appelbaum says. “I can’t wait in the nursing suite for kids to come see me. What I like to do is hang out in the hallways or visit the lunchroom to see what students are eating. It allows me to adapt to what a student’s needs are before they get to the point of having to come and see me.”

Getting to know his students is important for another reason, too, Nurse Brett says. “Sometimes they don’t feel comfortable going to their teachers or even their parents. So I think having one extra person they can go to is important,” he says. “The main reason I’m here is to help these kids be successful and stay in school. That’s my job.”

It’s a job that changes daily, however. At 8 a.m. most days, he begins by meeting with students who require specific medication regimens. Then it may be a few paper cuts, colds, or injuries, or perhaps meeting with pregnant students who struggle to stay in school. He estimates he sees 15 to 20 students per day for treatment of some sort.

And then there are the variables. Two weeks ago, Miller says, Appelbaum helped saved yet another life during a parent-teacher conference day. In the lobby, a parent waiting for a teacher conference began showing symptoms of a drug overdose; apparently he had taken heroin before coming to the school.

Rushing to the parent’s assistance along with the school’s SRO, Appelbaum quickly administered the narcotic-blocking drug Naloxone before the parent overdosed and died. And that was his second overdosed patient in just that week, Miller noted.

“Already this year he has had to manage several significant medical emergencies,” Somerville says. “His calm demeanor and strong clinical skills supported good outcomes in all of these emergencies.”

Just four months into his new job, Appelbaum says he loves Lansdowne, saving special praise for Miller’s leadership and the teamwork he found among staff and faculty. “I’ve never worked anywhere before where everyone is willing to say, ‘Hey, do you need a hand?’” Nurse Brett says. “It’s really tremendous.”

What comes next

He admits his biggest challenge so far has been “the language barrier” – understanding English Learners (students for whom English is a second language) when they try to describe their pains or symptoms. While he’s begun taking Spanish classes to learn the language, Nurse Brett says he will call in translating help if needed or call a language “hot line” if a translator isn’t available. He also makes frequent use of the Google Translate app on his smart phone.

Already, he’s thinking ahead. He would like to begin an afterschool smoking cessation class and has applied for grant monies to use for substance abuse education. He’s also thinking about how he can provide more family planning education for his students; he doesn’t think they get enough.

For now, though, he’s content doing what he can to bring good health habits to his Lansdowne students, and to students at Woodlawn High School, where he works in an extended day program every Tuesday and Thursday. The days are long, he admits, but he enjoys the work and his new wife – they were married this fall – doesn’t mind the hours; she’s a registered nurse at Sinai Hospital.

“There’s hundreds of different things that happen during the day, and it can be a lot, but this is a job where you go home at the end of the day feeling great,” Nurse Brett says.

“I’ve never been this happy.”

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to  

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