When Jenny Friel – “Nurse Jenny” – became Pocahontas County Schools’ first school nurse 17 years ago, she never thought she would one day be named West Virginia School Nurse of the Year.
Each year, the West Virginia Association of School Nurses selects a school nurse to receive the honor, and Friel was selected for 2022.
“I never dreamed I would get something like that, so it’s quite an honor,” Friel said.
She was presented the award at the WVASN conference held at Stonewall Jackson Resort. The conference is held every year, but Friel admits it took her a few years into her career to start attending.
“I think it took me a couple years to get the nerve up to go to my first conference, but after that – getting to see other nurses from throughout the state – at least I could get to collaborate a little bit, one time a year,” she said. “For so long I was just a loner.”
Friel is one of nearly 150 school nurses in the state, and she said she is proud to be part of a large community of nursing professionals who care for the state’s children.
She attended nursing school at Alderson Broaddus College – now University – in Philippi, and minored in school nursing.
“I really enjoyed when we did the clinicals and went into the schools, but I never thought I’d get a chance to do it, because it just didn’t exist here [in Pocahontas County],” she said.
Friel and her husband, Rob, lived in Philippi until 1996, when they returned to their native home of Pocahontas County.
“I worked home health for several years,” she said. “Worked at the hospital; worked at Summersville as a nurse advocate.
“I’ll never forget, Karen McCoy is the one who told me there was a job opening.”
McCoy, who is secretary at Marlinton Middle School, told Friel there was a school nurse position available. Friel applied and the rest is history.
As the first school nurse for Pocahontas County Schools, Friel said it was a busy beginning.
“When I started, there had never been a nurse, so I had to create all my own forms,” she explained. “There was no such thing as healthcare plans for any kids with medical conditions in the schools, so I was playing catch up there for a couple of years, trying to get everything established.”
In those 17 years, Friel went from traveling to all five schools in the county, to having three LPNs who work with her in the schools.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I wish we could get one more, then we’d have one in each school, but it has been a blessing because I don’t know how I ran around to five schools. I don’t think I could do it now like I did when I was younger.
“They are a blessing,” she added about the LPNs. “It’s been wonderful to have them and just to have the collaboration with them because I was alone for so long. It’s nice to have other medical people in the building to consult with and collaborate with.”
Working with the students has also been a blessing for Friel. She said she has enjoyed watching them grow up and move on to the next chapter of their lives. Many of her former students keep in touch and continue to seek medical advice from her.
“It’s been rewarding,” she said. “I’ve gotten to follow a lot of our students all the way through school, and that’s great – and to still have them contact me today. They contact me on Facebook and ask me questions, so that means a lot.”
Friel has seen a lot in her 17 years as a school nurse – from simple scrapes and colds to the swine flu and the COVID-19 pandemic. Through it all, she has kept her poise and went above and beyond to ensure that all students – and staff – were safe in the schools.
While Friel was surprised by the award, many Pocahontas countians would be more likely to say they were surprised it took so long for her to receive the accolade.