October 7, 2009 -- Tonight's episode of Fox's new dramedy Glee included a plotline in which a character with no health training gets a job as a school nurse. The show's lead character, Will, is a high school glee club director. His wife Terri works at a retail store, but she becomes the school nurse to keep an eye on Will, whom she suspects is having an affair with a guidance counselor. Terri gives the fatigued glee club kids pseudoephedrine to keep them alert, assuring them it's OK because, after all, it's just an over-the-counter drug! For that she eventually gets fired, and the episode stresses that Terri is not a real nurse, so viewers will understand that her misdeeds should not be imputed to real nurses. The show is somewhat absurdist, bending reality to suit its comic ends. But this episode suggests that nursing itself is kind of a joke, since a useless conniver like Terri can waltz into a school nurse job by telling the principal that she has first aid training and once used the "defibulator." Even Glee would never suggest she could get a physician job that way. In fact, real school nurses must generally have bachelor of science degrees in nursing; their training is not just an optional extra, as the show implies. In a cool twist, the evil cheerleading coach who helps Terri gain entry to the nurse position by putting the former school nurse in a coma is played by Jane Lynch, who also played "Nurse 'Doctor' Poole," one of the worst battle-axes in television history, in ABC's 2002 drama MDs. This episode of Glee, "Vitamin D," drew 7.3 million U.S. viewers, and it was written by show creator Ryan Murphy, who also created FX's physician-centric nip/tuck.
Will Schuester is a good, talented, and handsome guy, so it's no mystery why the sweet, meek, mysophobic (germ-fearing) guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury has a thing for him. Will clearly sees something in her as well. Meanwhile, his glee club kids have become complacent. They think they'll have an easy ride through their "sectionals" competition, which leads to "regionals," because their competition seems to be weak. So Will needs a way to motivate them. Inspired by the nasty but successful cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, who has contempt for Will's nice guy approach, he decides on a boys vs. girls "mashup" competition, in which the glee kids combine two songs into one, to spark their competitive fire and energy! (Stay with us, this all matters.)
In another scene, the popular, pretty cheerleader Quinn Fabray falters in a cheerleading formation. She tells coach Sue she is tired from glee club, leading Sue to fear that her national cheerleading championship is at stake. Sue decides that she has to destroy glee club, and to do so she must destroy Will. So she goes to see Terri, and tells her Will is cheating with Emma. Sue advises Terri to get into the school and see for herself, noting that the school nurse position is open because "Mrs. Lancaster" is in a coma. We see a flashback of Sue tripping the older, white-skirted nurse down the stairs. Terri says that she's not a nurse, but works at "Sheets and Things." Sue tells her to "get creative" if she wants to keep her husband. Next we see Terri meeting with Mr. Figgins, the school principal.
Figgins: Mrs. Schuester, I appreciate your interest in the nursing position. But your previous experience is limited to folding hand towels.
Terri: As assistant manager at Sheets and Things, I've had first aid training! I've also used the defibulator [sic].
This actually seems to impress the principal. Next, we see Will in the staff room informing Emma that she will be the celebrity judge for the boys-vs-girls "glee-off," giving her tender compliments about how fair and honest she is. Terri appears at the doorway in a sort of white nurse's coat. She surprises the two of them, mentions that she is Will's "pregnant wife," and terrifies Emma by wiping off a bit of lipstick that "someone" got on the germophobic counselor's cup. Terri explains to Will:
Terri: You've been so stressed about our finances lately that I thought I would pitch in by getting a second job. I'm the new school nurse!
Will: But...you're not a nurse. You don't have any training.
Terri: Oh, please, Will. It's a public school.
That's a nice touch. Actually, Terri is only "fake pregnant," and she has asked the pregnant Quinn to let her adopt the student's baby, evidently planning to keep all this from Will.
Quinn's boyfriend Finn Hudson is also exhausted all the time. In a voiceover, he tells us that he knows he's lucky, as football captain, glee club stud, and boyfriend of the very hot Quinn, who is two months pregnant with a baby he (wrongly) thinks is his. But Finn also likes glee star Rachel Berry, and between all that plus school and "being popular" he doesn't have much energy, even though he gave up homework. Finn passes out while helping the other male glee club members plan their mashup. His friend advises him to go see the nurse, telling him that every day the friend tells the nurse he has a headache and sleeps there for three hours. So Finn goes, and finds Terri with a stethoscope around her neck. She greets him with comments about him being the one dating Quinn and having really good bone structure, obviously related to her interest in adopting Quinn's baby.
Finn: Yeah, I've been really tired lately, and I was wondering if I could lie down in here for a while.
Terri: Why don't you have a seat? Why don't you tell me a little bit about your sleep habits?
He tells her that he's really tired but can't fall asleep: "It's like my brain won't shut up."
Terri: Well, what are you thinking about? Oh, you can be honest with me--there's a code of silence in my office.
Finn: OK. Football plays, girls, dance steps, girls.
Terri: Girls? But you're dating Quinn Fabray.
Finn: Yeah, but...do you think a guy can be into two girls at once?
Terri: No. And remember flirting is cheating. And the revenge of the jilted woman is usually pretty messy.
Finn: So can I take my nap now?
Terri: Do you want to sleep through your life, Finn?
Finn: No, but...I read once that teenagers need more sleep than infants.
Terri: When I was in high school, I captained the cheerleading squad, I kept a perfect 4.0 GPA, I cultivated my popularity, and I maintained a loving relationship with the boy who would become my husband. Wow...I don't even know how I did that. Wait a minute--yes I do! Pseudoephedrine. It's the stuff they put in decongestants to make them non-drowsy. It's kind of like a...well, like a vitamin. I would pop two of these blue meanies every morning, and then I would be a firecracker for the rest of the day.
Finn: Are they safe?
Terri: They're over-the-counter. They stock them next to the candy bars. Sweetie, I'm the school nurse. I know what I'm doing.
She gives him a product called "Decongestant D." He takes two and is suddenly manic, overflowing with energy and practically babbling. He tells the other glee boys he got "Vitamin D" from the school nurse, and got them some too. Next we see them tearing through their "glee-off" number, wowing Emma and Will, who says it's "like somebody slipped something in your juice boxes." Will tells the girls they had better perform well the next day, or the boys' number will be the opening number for sectionals.
This bothers the super-competitive Rachel. And as she is berating her fellow girls about how they're going to have to try harder, a glee club boy named Kurt, who is closer to the girls, stops by to reveal the boys' secret drug fuel. Rachel then confronts Finn, telling him he is a "cheater." He says he's under a lot of pressure, and that she'll have to accept that the girls will lose. The next thing we see, all the girls are in with Nurse Terri, getting their blue meanies, except for the pregnant Quinn, to whom Terri gives folic acid instead.
Rachel: Are you sure we should be doing this?
Terri: Oh, it's over the counter, it's safe. You can trust me, I'm a nurse. It's good for you.
Meanwhile, Terri calls Howard Bamboo, apparently a colleague at Sheets and Things. She reminds him that she's "moonlighting as a nurse" and asks him to go to the drugstore and get 36 boxes of decongestant, so the children will be "healthy and happy."
Later, the football coach Ken, who's in love with Emma, stops by to talk with Terri about the Will-Emma thing. Terri tells Ken to propose to Emma, and for strength, gives him some Vitamin D! Later, Will sees how energetic Ken is, and asks Terri if her vitamin regimen is really safe, since she's "not really a nurse." She asks him not to criticize her "work." With Terri's continued urging, Ken does propose to Emma. Emma isn't thrilled, and she gives Will a chance to tell her she has a chance with him. But he doesn't, and Terri stops by to intimidate Emma, telling her that Will is unavailable. The lonely, sad Emma does later accept Ken's marriage proposal, though she demands a kind of "secret marriage" in which they don't actually live together or see each other after school.
We see Rachel introduce the girls' mashup, clearly as hyperactive as the boys were. This mashup is equally well-received, and Will notes that celebrity judge Emma has her work cut out for her.
Later, Quinn, who is two months pregnant, stops Terri in the hall, saying she wants to ask her something about the baby.
Terri: Is everything OK? You're not having it right now, are you?
Quinn: What? No! Aren't you supposed to be a nurse?
Quinn explains that she likes her life as it is, but she already feels overwhelmed, so she will accept Terri's offer to adopt the baby.
Rachel goes to Finn and they agree that it was wrong of them to cheat. So they agree both sides will withdraw from the "glee-off" and own up to what they did. And we see Will and Terri in the office of Principal Figgins, who obviously has learned about Vitamin D. Will is furious, because he actually cares about the kids. Terri is unrepentant.
Terri: I'll say it again: They were over-the-counter, FDA-approved, and if I didn't give it to them, I'm sure the kids would just find a way to get it for themselves.
Will denies that, noting that these are good kids. Terri says nothing bad happened, but Figgins tells them that Howard Bamboo, her drug buyer, got arrested on suspicion of running a crystal meth lab, since pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in methamphetamine. Terri says she never told Howard to get them all in one place. Will doesn't see how she can raise a baby when she can't even look after teenagers.
Figgins: I have serious concerns about your judgment, Mrs. Schuester. I must ask you to resign as school nurse.
Terri: Fine. I was working too hard anyway.
Figgins tells Will he has to question his judgment as well. He says Will's obsession with winning and competition has created an unsafe environment. So Figgins is bringing in someone to co-chair the glee club, "someone with a track record of responsibility and excellence." The kids apologize to Will, but they can't stop the new glee co-chair--who turns out to be cheerleading coach Sue. She can't wait to get started!
Terri as "school nurse" leaves a path of destruction, manipulating the glee club kids into taking drugs and cheating in their glee-off, manipulating Emma and Ken into something they'll call a marriage, and undermining Will's glee club work, which he will now share with Sue, who will do her utmost to destroy it. But wait--as the episode reminds us over and over, Terri is not a real nurse. Plainly, show creator Ryan Murphy did not want to suggest a real nurse would behave so irresponsibly. In fact, the plotline could be read as at least a faint suggestion that real nursing is a responsible job involving dangerous drugs and the trust of vulnerable people. More than once Will and the kids ask Terri if what she's doing is really OK. And Finn and Quinn seem to have more health knowledge than Terri does about teens' need for sleep and whether women typically give birth after a couple months of pregnancy. Maybe real nursing actually involves a certain basic amount of health knowledge, training, and responsibility--though Mrs. Lancaster's apparent care for Finn's friend (just letting him sleep for three hours that he's supposed to be attending classes, instead of seeking a better solution) leaves a little something to be desired.
However, the real problem is the idea that someone like Terri could get a nursing job at all. Yes, the show is absurdist to some extent. But the absurdism mostly involves characters making silly decisions, witty remarks, and fanciful claims, apparently whatever comes into their heads; this is especially true of Sue and Terri. Sue's brutal sidelining of the former school nurse is pretty implausible. But as on ABC's zany Scrubs, there is still a core of reality the show does not challenge--there are no flying, talking donkeys--and most of what happens is within the realm of possibility.
In this episode, there is no indication that a school nurse must have a science degree involving years of college training and a state-issued license to practice. Principal Figgins makes the hiring decision, and there is no suggestion that he is incompetent. The episode says that training is good, even for public school nurses, but it will also suggest to many impressionable young viewers that nursing is like waiting tables or being an office clerk. Sure, experience is helpful and you should claim to have some, but you can probably fake your way into the job and maybe wing it once you get there. Certainly, nothing tells viewers that nursing requires anything more than the six-week training course some people think is all that's needed. In fact, school nurses today must manage student populations with increasingly complex chronic conditions, and they may have to use their advanced skills to save students' lives, for instance in the event of asthma attacks. They're not just responsible people with a little health knowledge. By comparison, even a show like Glee would not suggest that Terri could get a job as a physician without any training.
It may be unlikely that Glee will have cause to revisit school nursing. But maybe one of its young characters will consider the profession, if that American Idol thing doesn't work out, and we'll learn a little more about what it really takes to be a nurse. We'd like to think Finn--you know, football plays, girls, dance steps, girls, nursing--but he'll have to start doing homework again to handle that demanding college science curriculum!
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