Behind the Blackboard:

Nurse, therapy dog heal students’ mind, body, soul

Rebecca McWalters uses Frosty at DeSana Middle School as a therapy dog to help students who are anxious.
Rebecca McWalters uses Frosty at DeSana Middle School as a therapy dog to help students who are anxious.
KATHLEEN STURGEON/HERALD
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FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The most popular faculty member at DeSana Middle School isn’t even human.

Frosty the therapy dog roams the halls with his handler and nurse Rebecca McWalters. Together, they’ve made an inseparable pair since the school opened last year and can heal almost any ailment a student might have, from an upset stomach to an uneasy mind.

She was initially a stay-at-home mom with four children who put herself through nursing school.

She did her senior practicum at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, and was hired on about 10 years ago. While there, she worked with veterans and children with spinal cord injuries.

Frosty came from the Canine Companion company five years ago when they wanted to place a dog at the Shepherd Center. When McWalters heard about it, she knew she wanted to be Frosty’s handler.

“We’re a team,” she said. “He has been great for the kids. They say Frosty is the mascot. With anxiety, stress and fear, the counselors and I work closely together to use Frosty in that way.”

Now, she still works at the Shepherd Center on weekends but spends her weekdays at DeSana.

“My mom was a school nurse in Virginia so it’s always been in the back of my mind to do,” McWalters said. “Frosty and I did a presentation at Whitlow Elementary School three years ago and I thought it was great.”

The principal at Whitlow told McWalters to apply with Forsyth County Schools and it eventually led to her being hired at DeSana.

She enjoys school nursing because the kids are fun and hilarious, she said. Additionally, she gets to see many students throughout the year and likes learning about their diverse backgrounds.

She put up a world map in her clinic and lets the students put a dot on the map of where they and their families are from. It helps her learn, but also lets the students know more about their classmates.

“It let them see we are from all over the world,” McWalters said. “It opened up dialogue and conversations about culture. It makes DeSana unique.”

Along with the many diverse cultures, she said she loves hearing about the students’ families.

“Each student is unique and awesome,” McWalters said. “I’m privileged to be a part of their lives for a moment in their lifetime. There’s not one kid here that I don’t love.”

Now in her second year as a school nurse, McWalters said she usually doesn’t encounter any issues aside from the occasional asthma attack, but nothing life threatening.

“Working at the Shepherd Center has helped,” she said. “Our spinal and brain cord injury patients have respiratory issues. I’m very familiar with the care that comes with the artificial airways. It’s one reason I don’t waste time calling 911.”

Frosty spent time at the Shepherd Center comforting patients and their families during their stays. He became the surrogate pet to those who left behind their own pets.

“A lot of families have taken a lot of time with Frosty and loved him,” she said. “He’ll get in bed with a patient. A lot of moms have benefited during their grief process at their child’s loss of function. Frosty doesn’t have to do anything. People just want him near them. Petting and loving him instantly reduce stress.”

The combination of using Frosty and McWalters’ mindset of healing the whole student has benefitted the children in school.

“I’d be lost without him,” she said. “I care about the students’ entire wellbeing including their mental health and physical wellbeing. I don’t just put a Band-Aid on a kid. I look at the whole picture. I want to be the best nurse our students deserve and need.”


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