Meet the Memphis school nurse who helped a shooting victim survive

Nurse Karen Taylor poses for a photo at Cummings K-8 Optional School.
Karen Taylor has been heralded as a hero after her quick action to care for and comfort an injured child during a school shooting at Cummings K-8 Optional School on Sept. 30. (Courtesy of Shelby County Schools)

With more than 50 years of nursing behind her, including as a trauma nurse, Karen Taylor has encountered countless life-and-death situations.

All those decades of experience weren’t really needed after Taylor became a Shelby County Schools nurse in March because her days were spent dealing with belly aches and scraped knees — that is, until the morning of Sept. 30, when an urgent announcement blasted over the intercom: “Nurse Taylor, we need you in the counselor’s office right now.” 

Instinct set in. The 73-year-old Taylor bolted out of her office and ran to the opposite end of the school, putting on two layers of gloves on the way. When Taylor arrived, she learned a 13-year-old boy had been shot in a stairwell by another student just minutes earlier. 

As the nation faces a school nursing shortage, Taylor is part of an expanded pool of nurses inside of Shelby County Schools this year thanks to a COVID-relief grant. When she got the call that a student was in crisis, her years of training set in. She rushed to the student’s side, comforted him, and called his father. She wrapped her arm around his shoulder to comfort him, and used her other hand to put pressure on his wound until paramedics arrived. 

As the students and staff at Cummings K-8 Optional School continue to heal after the pain  and chaos of the school shooting last week, Taylor has been heralded as a hero for leaping into action that morning, and for her quick, selfless efforts to soothe the injured student and keep him alive. The boy is recovering from his injuries and has since returned to school.

To Taylor, she was just doing her job.

“It’s kind of like adrenaline and what I’ve been doing for more than 50 years — nursing — took over,” Taylor said. “I knew I had to keep a level head. I’ve had to learn how to do that over my nursing career. I can’t afford to panic. I can’t afford to not think rationally. I can’t afford to just start crying and blubbering all over the place.”

Calling Taylor a “shero,” Shante Avant, a Shelby County Schools board member who represents Cummings school, said she’s grateful for Taylor’s selflessness, and her calm, reassuring presence. 

Taylor’s actions are especially impressive, Avant said, considering how little information she had about the situation at that time. 

“She had to, in the back of her mind, be thinking, you know, someone just got shot in the school. Are we all safe? Am I safe? But she was focused on making sure that student was OK,” she said.

“I’m a firm believer that these things don’t happen by happenstance,” Avant added. “I’m so thankful to God that he put the right people there on the right day.”

Taylor’s notoriety comes as school nurses play an outsized role in keeping schools across the U.S. open amid the ongoing pandemic. In August, an influential Tennessee panel urged Gov. Bill Lee to prioritize more funding for school nurses to allow the state to fund 1 nurse for every 750 students next year, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state’s current ratio is 1 nurse to 3,000 students.

And yet, while discussions of nurses’ importance have grown in recent months, schools are grappling with a nationwide shortage. A September study of the nursing workforce estimates that about a quarter of schools lack a nurse, despite their heightened importance in fighting COVID in schools and helping students address mental health issues.

This year, Shelby County Schools officials announced they would have a nurse in every school, thanks to a nearly $30 million grant funded by COVID federal relief funds and distributed by the Tennessee Department of Education. The district has yet to tell Chalkbeat if it had met that goal yet, or how many total nurses it employs or contracts.

For “Nurse Taylor,” as students at Cummings affectionately call her, COVID is the reason she became a school nurse in the first place. 

Since Taylor became a nurse some 54 years ago, she’s worked at almost every hospital in Memphis — often multiples at once, splitting her time between two or three on weekdays and weekends.

“It’s just been a journey,” Taylor recalled. “There’s never not a job for a nurse. If you want to work, you can find work. So that’s what I’ve always done.”

Her last RN job was working for Lakeside Behavioral Health System. A minor fender bender changed everything. 

After her accident, Taylor saw her doctor for a precautionary check-up, and asked her to write a letter explaining her absence from work. The pandemic was in full swing, and her doctor turned to her and said, “Ms. Taylor, you don’t have any business working right now,” Taylor remembered with a laugh.

Instead, Taylor, a 20-year breast cancer survivor with asthma and other pre-existing conditions that made her more vulnerable to serious illness if she contracted COVID, returned to work with a letter saying she could be a nurse until the pandemic eases.

About a year later, Taylor grew restless. She had always worked. She’d gotten vaccinated. Her doctor suggested a less risky job, like school nursing, and with some hesitation, her husband agreed. Starting in March through the end of the school year, Taylor split her time between Whitehaven High School, Whitehaven Elementary, and Holmes Road Elementary. In August, she was moved to Cummings.

Until last week, Taylor spent her school days helping children who had fallen ill and calling their parents to take them home, assisting students with diabetes, and making sure everyone keeps their masks in place.

Without a doubt, the best parts of Taylor’s job are the children and the overall camaraderie in the school community, she said. Quickly, she’s bonded with many of the students, teachers and other staff at Cummings.

“I go in the hallways when they change classrooms or go to the restrooms and they always show me they got their masks on, and I give them high fives and pats on the back,” Taylor said. “There’s definitely a bond there.”

Although Taylor wouldn’t call herself a hero, she agrees with Avant that she happened to be in the right place at the right time.

When Taylor was undergoing chemotherapy and “all that other ugly stuff” while fighting breast cancer, she remembers asking God to take her away quietly amid all that pain. When she survived, it felt like “he slapped me on my head and said, ‘I’m not through with you, girl,’ ” she said.

Now, Taylor counts her role in last week’s school shooting as one of the reasons she’s still here today.

“I’m in good health and I’m grateful for that,” she said. “And I’m grateful to be here at this school and help in this situation.”

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