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  • Pauline Hoffmann

National Nurses' Week: You Make a Difference

(This editorial appeared in the Olean Times Herald.)

Each May is National Nurses’ Month — a month-long celebration and commemoration of the work our nurses do to keep us healthy. Even though National Nurses’ Week began on May 6 and ended Friday, May 12 — Florence Nightingale’s birthday — the celebration continues throughout May with this year’s theme of You Make a Difference.

And what a difference nurses make in our communities.

We are familiar with the role many nurses play. We see them in hospitals; we see them in clinics; we see them in our doctors’ offices; we see them in our schools. Nurses work in many other settings we may not consider. Nurses may work on the front lines of community action initiatives that most of us don’t think about. Like addressing lead and lead poisoning in homes.

Melissa Chamberlain, registered nurse at the Cattaraugus County Health Department, has worked with families who have been exposed to lead in the home and is dedicated to improving lives through education and advocacy.

She came to nursing after a career as a hair stylist. Like many nurses, she had several family members who were in the profession. While she felt she was taking care of people as a stylist, she was looking for a way to bring greater meaning to her life while also helping people in her community.

“One of my most rewarding experiences was working with people at the end of their lives,” Chamberlain said. “It may sound odd but helping someone transition from this life to the next is incredibly rewarding. Often people feel powerless and we are able to help them feel less so.”

That compassion and knowledge has served her well throughout her career. She is currently committed to providing education and care to those impacted by lead poisoning in our community.

Lead is considered a neurotoxin, which, if it gets into your body, can cause significant harm including permanent damage. It also often doesn’t have any symptoms until it’s too late. If you live in a house that was built before 1978, you likely have lead in your home in some form or another including under newer painted surfaces. Children are most in danger because they have developing brains and hand to mouth behaviors. Small children often ingest lead dust found in old windows and other surfaces that are frequently touched. People often think children are only poisoned by eating paint chips or drinking contaminated water but it’s the dust that is often responsible. Sadly, it takes only a small amount of lead dust to poison a child. Lead may also be found in other items that people may have in their homes. If you have spices imported from the Middle East, Latin America, India or China, they may contain lead. Some cosmetics, candy and medicines from countries other than the U.S. may contain lead. The same with some incense, candlesticks and metal jewelry.

“People don’t realize that lead poisoning can cause permanent damage like memory loss, mood swings, sleeping problems or neurological disorders,” Chamberlain said. “Sadly, we see cycles. Children are exposed to lead; mom and dad were exposed to lead; grandparents were exposed to lead.”

The Cattaraugus County Health Department has resources and is able to help if you think you may have lead in your home or may have been exposed to lead. The best way to protect yourself and your family from lead poisoning is by keeping painted surfaces in old homes intact. Wet wiping old windows and other high-touch surfaces regularly can help.

It is really important that any work done in older homes is done safely. Landlords are legally required to hire someone lead certified to complete any repairs that could create lead dust. If you, as a homeowner, want to take on a DIY project, you may find resources through the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the New York State Department of Health to ensure you complete the work safely.

“It is so important for us to get information out about lead and the dangers of lead because it’s all about prevention and awareness,” Chamberlain said. “If you think you have been exposed to lead — particularly pregnant women or small children — or know someone who may have been exposed, please call the County Health Department. Remember that children under two must be tested, it’s the law.” Children up to age 6 can also be at risk. Be sure to talk to your pediatrician if you suspect your child should have additional testing.

Nurses continue to monitor our health and the health of our community. They make sure our children and families are safe. This May, consider what nurses have seen and what they do on a daily basis. They truly make a difference.

Thank you, nurses!

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