Years ago, Belle Terre Elementary School nurse Janice Mikutel was in a classroom with a handful of students with disabilities, her full-time assignment, when a boy had a seizure. She was prepared: Seizures were not uncommon among this group, and she had a list of everyone’s individualized emergency protocols.
“She is everything you’d want in a nurse.”
CHRISTIANA BUFFINGTON, parent
Most of the time, the seizures passed without complication, but this one was a concern. She kept an eye on the second hand of the clock on the wall, and then she made the decision: It was time for the emergency protocol.
She brought the child to the bathroom, which in this classroom had been specially outfitted with a changing table, and she administered the prescribed rescue medication for the child — rectally — and the child responded.
Mikutel is used to doing whatever is necessary to help the students. For her, it’s not a stressful situation but an opportunity to serve.
“I’m saving their life,” she said in a recent interview with the Palm Coast Observer. “It makes me have pride in my work. Makes me want to come back tomorrow, do it all over again.”
Mikutel has been a school nurse for 13 years, the longest of any nurse in Flagler Schools, which is why she is being recognized as one of this year’s Standing O’s.
Her students, ages 3 to 14, often can’t use at toilet, can’t eat except through a tube, can’t talk, and many have seizures. When a day goes by with no seizures, Mikutel notices. “You cherish those good days,” she said.
The classroom teacher, Mercedes Brunell, said Mikutel “goes out of her way” to serve the children.
“Our kids might have accidents, and she’ll do laundry,” Brunell said. “If anybody needs anything, she’s there.”
A second mother figure
When she was a middle school student as a girl in Georgia, Mikutel remembers calling her mother from a school phone. Mikutel was having monthly cramps, and she wasn’t used to it, so she wanted her mother to pick her up. She was told to see the school nurse instead; you can’t miss school every month.
“If anybody needs anything, she’s there.”
MERCEDES BRUNELL, teacher who works in the classroom with Janice Mikutel
So Mikutel went to see the nurse, who let her lie down and rest for a while. It was an awkward situation for her as a young girl, but the nurse made her feel at home.
“She was almost like a second mother figure, to guide me through the joys of womanhood,” Mikutel recalled with a laugh.
When she grew up, she joined the Navy and worked in the medical field. After finishing her service there, in 2000, she worked at hospitals and doctor’s offices and finally went to Daytona State College for a degree in nursing. Around the same time that she graduated, she also got married. But she soon felt burned out from the demands of family life and 12-hour shifts, so she decided to take a big pay cut and apply to be a special-needs nurse at Belle Terre. A Plantation Bay resident, Mikutel was hired by Flagler Schools in 2008; her daughter, Isabella, also attends Belle Terre.
When she first started, there was one student on a feeding tube, and she became adept at caring for the child and communicating with the parents. Over the years, there have been up to five in the classroom, all on feeding tubes. The classroom has tables and wheelchairs, rather than desks, along with a refrigerator, stove and other accommodations. The students communicate with the teacher, paraprofessionals and Mikutel by using devices and choosing the correct word among a set of pictures.
Despite their struggles — some take two or three years to learn to recognize a picture of their own face among a group of three faces — the students are happy to be in the classroom. “They know they’re in school, and they smile back at you,” Mikutel said.
Communicating with parents
Christiana Buffington moved to Palm Coast from Volusia County in 2018, and she was nervous about sending her daughter to school. Without a nurse in the classroom, she felt that the previous school didn’t meet Mikayla’s special needs.
But Mikutel resolved all those concerns. She follows detailed instructions to keep Mikayla on the proper schedule, aligning care at school with care at home.
“My daughter couldn’t go to school without someone like Janice,” Buffington said. “She is great at communicating. She cares a lot about every kid in the class. If there’s anything she can physically do to make their day better, she will absolutely do it.”
Buffington knows that her daughter sometimes has a bad day, and she worries. So Buffington communicates directly with Mikutel and says, “I can come get her if needed.” When Mikutel reassures Buffington and says Mikayla is doing fine, “I know that with Janice saying it, it’s true,” Buffington said. “I absolutely trust her.”