More than 3,000 readers cast their vote online for The Courier Person of the Year, and St. Francis Preparatory School nurse Mary Pappas emerged as the winner, receiving nearly 67 percent of the votes cast.
Pappas was thrust into the national and even international spotlight last April when she spotted what turned out to be the first swine flu, or H1N1, case in New York at the Fresh Meadows school.
Pappas beat out Jorge Munoz, a CNN Heroes Award finalist who cooks and brings meals to day laborers in Jackson Height; Rachel Guzy, the quick-thinking hero camp counselor who saved kids when a bus went spiraling out of control; Michael Bloomberg, who won a third term as Mayor of New York City; and John Liu, the first Asian-American elected to citywide office as City Comptroller.
For Pappas, the morning of Thursday, April 23, 2008 started out like any other day.
“Band-aids, nosebleeds, I got gum on my pants, but then early in the morning there was a long line in my office, and I knew something wasn’t right here,” said Pappas, who is a St. Francis Prep alumna and has worked as the nurse at the high school for the past eight years.
Pappas noted that one student after another had a fever so she originally thought it might have been a problem in homeroom or a single class. She went and alerted Principal Brother Leonard Conway about the situation, and when she came back to her office, more students were waiting.
“Twenty minutes later the line was out the door and down the hall, and I knew that something was seriously wrong so I notified the Department of Health,” Pappas said.
After alerting the Department of Health, they told Pappas to inform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about what was going on. She did, but she still had dozens of sick students – many of whom felt terrible and were apprehensive about what was happening.
Pappas put her 27 years of experience as a nurse and 11 as a school nurse into action. She had two assistants helping her in the office, but she knew she needed more help. Teacher came to the office and started setting up chairs in the hallway for students to sit and wait to be examined.
Then, Pappas quickly taught a security guard how to use a thermometer and had him take the students’ temperatures and then post a sticky-note on the student with what their temperature was. After examining the students, Pappas was able to get in touch with parents or guardians to get the kids home.
“I wasn’t nervous; I didn’t have time to be nervous,” Pappas said. “I just had to keep working and get them out. I just trusted my instincts.”
By the end of Thursday, Pappas had sent 102 students home sick and 80 more students were sent home the next day when the CDC arrived and began testing students for the swine flu or H1N1 virus. It turned out that a group of students at the school had gone on a trip to Mexico during their spring break and brought back the virus with them.
Hoards of media outlets from throughout city, state and country flocked to St. Francis Prep as the story about the virus’ origination in the United States dominated the headlines. None of the St. Francis Prep students who contracted the H1N1 virus died or suffered long-term effects from the virus, and many credited Pappas’ early identification of the problem as a reason for that.
“I am very, very proud that she had the foresight to realize that this was totally out of the ordinary and that the Department of Health should be notified,” said Conway. “What I like is that she is very low-keyed; she doesn’t panic. She is very concerned about students and staff that come to the nurse’s office when you’re not feeling well, and she’s very compassionate.”
After her handling of the H1N1 outbreak, Pappas, the soft-spoken mother from Bayside, said people from the neighborhood came up to her and said they saw her on television or in the newspaper.
“It was great because I was getting validated for doing what I love to do,” Pappas said.
The recognition expanded to a national level as well. In September, Pappas was one of 50 nurses from around the country who was invited to Washington D.C., to meet with President Barack Obama and listen to him talk about healthcare and the important role nurses play in it.
“I think it’s right down to basics: Kids learn when they’re healthy, and nurses keep them healthy,” Pappas said. “We really save lives.”