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A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray

Glee just can't help insulting school nurses

Penny doing the Heimlich 
October 3, 2013 -- Tonight's episode of Fox's Glee included an abysmal depiction of school nursing. In the Beatles-themed episode (Ian Brennan's "Tina in the Sky with Diamonds"), the McKinley High School principal hired a college student named Penny--who had apparently not yet even begun nursing school--to give vaccinations and perform other school nursing tasks. We started a campaign about this episode soon after it aired; we now provide a fuller analysis and urge everyone to join the hundreds who have written to urge the show to do better. The Penny character described her work at the school as part of "an internship" that would help her gain admission to nursing school later, yet she also suggested that she had received two weeks of training in "injections." In any case, although Penny was a nice person, she was dangerously incompetent. She tried to give a vaccination with a needle she had just contaminated by practicing on a sausage, and after taking a urine sample at the same time that she was giving vaccinations, she evidently injected a cheerleader with urine. The principal did temporarily fire Penny for that last caper. And the episode made clear that Penny fell short of what a real nurse could do; she freely admitted that she was just learning. But she was still repeatedly identified as "Nurse Penny," and the overall effect was to make a mockery of school nursing. And although there was really nothing naughty about Penny, she did function as a bumbling temporary romantic object for Glee hunk Sam. Such media imagery, even as a "joke," contributes to the undervaluation that has already led to rampant understaffing of school nurses and now takes the lives of students everywhere. Please urge those responsible to make amends!

See the clips in Quicktime at broadband or at dialup speed (6:05). Please join our letter-writing campaign (enter your comments to the producers in the "why is this important to you" box). Or read more below.

Penny and Beatles nurse selling poppies from a trayIn the plotline, the new McKinley school principal Sue Sylvester--the longtime cheerleading coach and Glee Club tormentor--hires Penny in order to administer a new polio-meningitis vaccination program. In an early scene, Sue tells Glee coach Will Schuester about her health care plans.

Sue:  Now, seeing as how your students in the Glee Club come and go for weeks at a time with no explanation whatsoever, I'm sure that it will not come to you as a surprise that we have an abysmal attendance record at this school due to illness. Therefore, I am instituting mandatory vaccinations at the school, starting with your pansexual orgy of future patient zeros, the Glee Club. … And we will begin with the polio vaccine.

Will:  Sue, polio was all but eradicated in the 1950s.

Sue:  Or so they'd have us believe. I saw a documentary last night about FDR and it made me very suspicious about that Glee kid in the wheelchair.

Sam:  Artie? He was in a car accident as a kid.

Sue:  Fact:  there is a meningitis outbreak in Los Angeles. Fact:  Mercedes Jones recently returned from Los Angeles…

Will:  Sue, I'm all about keeping the kids in the school healthy, but this is ridiculous.

Sue threatens to fire Will if the Club does not comply with the vaccination program. Next, we see a pretty young woman in a room. Her nametag says "Nurse Penny" and she seems to be practicing needle sticks on a sausage. The hunky Glee Club student Sam appears, looking very nervous.

Penny:  Oh, are you here for you polio-meningitis cocktail? I wasn't sure if I should call it "polingitis" or "meningi-olio."

Sam:  I like the second one, it sounds like Italian food. … Anyways, yes, I am here for my shots. To be honest, I'm kind of freaked out by needles, and even if I wasn't, I'd kind of be freaked out by you with a needle. I saw you kill that sausage.

Penny:  Oh, yeah, that, I know. I had kind of an extended panic attack during the two weeks we studied injections last semester.

Sam:  Wait, are you not a real nurse?

Penny:  I'm a sophomore in college. This is kind of an internship to help me get into nursing school.

Penny is about to give Sam the shot, but he notices that it's the same needle she just put in the sausage. There is no indication she knows that's a bad thing, despite her two weeks of injection training. Sam departs, saying he'll return later. He is clearly scared of her cluelessness with the needle, but also attracted to her personally.

And in fact Sam does keep returning, even inventing excuses to visit Penny's office, like pretending that an apparently self-inflicted bite is a snake bite. Artie points out that Sam even left math class to get a Band-Aid for his hangnail. Their fellow Glee Club member Blaine notes helpfully that Penny will be chaperoning the upcoming prom, which presumably will give Sam a chance to get to know her better.

Then, down the hall, they see that Penny has just dropped a bunch of health supplies. Cue a musical number, with Sam singing the Beatles song "Something" about Penny. During the song we see a montage of scenes with Penny and Sam. In one, she seems to be teaching a class about the Heimlich maneuver, in front of a blackboard that says "CHOKING" in letters so huge and colorful that it would have taken her a long time to create them. She demonstrates on a willing Sam. Then we see a long line of McKinley boys--just boys--including the Glee kids, who help Sam sing, waiting in line to see Nurse Penny. She playfully sticks a tongue depressor in the mouth of one boy! Then Penny dances with Sam, in prom clothes, as the song concludes.

But later, Sam finds Penny packing up her things.

Penny:  Sue fired me for incompetence. I was giving one of her Cheerios [cheerleaders] a urine test, and another one a vaccination, and I got my vials all mixed up, and well, you can guess what happened.

Meaning, presumably, that Penny injected urine into one of the students. Sam is distressed. He urges her to give him his shot, because if she can get him to do that, "Sue will have to see how great of a nurse you are and keep you."

Penny:  One of these days I'm going to get this right. Might as well be today.

She gives Sam the shot in his butt; he seems to be in pain. Later, Sam bursts into Sue's office.

Sam:  You can't fire her! Nurse Penny. You can't get rid of her. I've been terrified of needles my whole life, and she just used her impressive nursing skills and nurturing bedside manner to give me a meningitis shot in my butt.

After some standard mockery of Sam, Sue actually agrees.

Sue:  Fine, you've convinced me. Nurse Bumble McQuirkypoops will remain at McKinley High. I could use a new plaything. You know, yesterday I asked her for two aspirin and she accidentally gave me steroids, which means now I can finally stop buying from Mark McGuire. He always wants to hang out and I just want to get the hell out of his house.

At the prom, Penny indicates to Sam that she is aware he convinced Sue to "unfire" her, and that she realizes that he was faking being sick all week. He suggests that they dance.

Penny:  As a minor league nurse, I figured I should be on standby for any dancing-related injuries.

Sam:  I'm the one who's most likely to go out there and hurt myself on the dance floor, so as a minor league nurse, it is kind of your responsibility to dance with me.

She coyly consents. And that's really all we see of her.

The show creators seem to have been aware that the Penny plotline could damage nursing, and they seem to have made some effort to limit that damage. At a few points they make pretty clear that Penny is not a nurse and that a real nurse would know more and do better. Principal Sue hired Penny, but as the initial exchange Sue had with Will about polio and meningitis shows, Sue is not the show's idea of a responsible or even rational school administrator. And Sue does fire Penny, temporarily, for "incompetence."

But the episode's overall treatment of nursing is confused and very unhelpful. The characters spend a lot of time treating Penny as if she really is a nurse, starting with the tendency to call her "Nurse Penny" and including the comments that she is a "minor league nurse," which is, of course, still a nurse. In fact, although Penny suggests that she has not yet started nursing school, she also says that she was in some kind of program in which she spent two weeks studying "injections," and she seems to be teaching a class about what to do when there is "CHOKING." So some elements of the episode suggest that Penny has had some nursing or at least health care training. At the same time, Penny's statement that she is in college but seeking admission to "nursing school" may cause some to believe nursing school is somehow distinct from college, as if new nurses do not need college degrees in nursing to practice nursing.

And consider just how comically awful Penny's care is, how far it is from what we would expect even of a lay person. She seems to have no idea that it would be bad to inject people with a needle that has just been in a sausage, or that a person should be careful not to mix up syringes so as not to inject people with urine. She also seems to have confused steroids with aspirin, although Sue may have just made that one up for fun.

Anyway, even if viewers remember that "Nurse Penny" is not actually a nurse, what does it say about a profession that such a person could even aspire to nursing school, much less get hired as a school nurse? It says that nurses may be all about "nurturing bedside manner," but "impressive skills"... not so much. Yes, it's all just a "joke," but even jokes can undermine social views of disempowered groups when they reinforce existing stereotypes, in this case the still-widespread idea that nurses really are not all that bright or skilled. That is particularly true of school nurses, whose public image still runs in the "bruises and Band-Aids" direction.

Penny with syringeIn addition, Penny is obviously a convenient romantic object, although the Penny-Sam affair is a very chaste one and there is nothing naughty about Penny. We were a little surprised that the show failed to include a rendition of the Beatles classic "Penny Lane," which may have been the inspiration for Penny's name. If it had done so, we might have been treated to these lines:

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
A four of fish and finger pies
In summer meanwhile back
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she's in a play
She is anyway

Glee's Penny is in a play, of sorts, and she might at least be qualified to look pretty while selling poppies from a tray--although we're a bit concerned that they'd turn out to be opium.

Sadly, this is not the first time Glee has sent dangerously inaccurate messages about school nursing. Four years earlier, in an October 2009 episode, character Terri applied for a school nurse job in order to keep an eye on her then-husband Will, even though her health care training consisted of a CPR course. Then-principal Figgins and the ensuing plotline suggested that a school nurse ought to have more training, but Terri still got the job and put the students at risk by encouraging them to take pseudoephedrine as a study aid, before she was fired.

In fact, school nursing requires a bachelor of science in nursing. Today's overburdened school nurses need that training because they manage the health of hundreds of students who attend with serious conditions including asthma, diabetes, heart disease and allergies. Students have died because no registered nurse was available. And school nurses play a key public health role, educating students about critical health issues like pregnancy and STDs, as well as monitoring the student population for disease outbreaks.

We urge the creators of Glee to refrain from spreading further disinformation about school nursing to their impressionable audience, and to make amends, perhaps with a plotline that reminds viewers that real school nurses save lives.


See the clips in Quicktime at broadband or at dialup speed (6:05).

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