DMPS Health Services Supervisor Diane Gladson had plenty on the agenda for last Friday’s virtual meeting of 67 school nurses. Their role, too, shapes up very differently this year. But besides going over new protocols for quarantining, mask waivers, mitigation measures and the like, she scheduled a kind of keynote speaker from within the ranks, Sone Lovan, who’s about to begin her 27th year as a DMPS nurse, her first in a preschool setting at Woodlawn Education Center.

“I think Sone’s story is important for all of us to hear and understand as we work with students and families on a daily basis that have similar stories,” Gladson explained.

Lovan was born in Laos. She was ten years old when she arrived in America in the mid-1970s by way of a Thai refugee camp. “The only English I knew was ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” she recalls. From the start, the emphasis has been on the former.

“I was placed in 5th grade at Moore Elementary,” Lovan told us. “They assigned a buddy to me to follow around and learn from.”

Her assigned buddy grew up to be Cindy Wissler, the principal at Jackson Elementary.

“We went on to Meredith (Middle School, nee Junior High) and Hoover (High School) together (Class of ’83) before heading our separate ways. Then twenty-some years later, when I was the nurse at Monroe (Elementary), someone came in to apply for the job as principal. I saw her eyes and said ‘Cindy Senne!’ She looked at me and said ‘Sone Kham!’”

A lot had happened during those 20+ years in between.

As she learned English, Sone often accompanied others from the burgeoning Tai Dam community that resettled here after fleeing the war in Southeast Asia to medical appointments to serve as their interpreter. That’s what first sparked her interest in nursing.

Nursing school (at the University of Iowa and Grandview University) was even harder than she’d anticipated because it presented a whole new dialect of English – medical jargon.

“I wanted to quit at one point,” she said. “But our father (she came here with five siblings and an uncle besides her parents), who worked hard for low pay, stressed that if we didn’t want to end up doing the same, we had to do well in school.”

So she stuck it out. Upon graduation and passing the board exams as a Registered Nurse, Lovan started her career in a hospital setting. It wasn’t until her own two boys started school that she started over.

“Right away I knew this was the place for me,” she said. “It is the perfect spot for me to help others who are experiencing what I did as a little girl.”

Lovan has been assigned to the now defunct Wallace and the Downtown School in addition to Monroe at the elementary level. She’s also been at Hiatt and Callanan Middle Schools, serving as the district’s lead nurse at that level. When she learned of a preschool vacancy at Woodlawn, she sought it out. Her boys are adults now but in February, just before pandemic pandemonium broke out, she became a grandmother of twins. Maybe that recalibrated her to early childhood.

“We were so lucky they were born before all of the COVID restrictions started,” Nurse Grandma said. “I couldn’t have imagined not being able to hold them.”

One thing Lovan made a point of mentioning was the esteem in which she and the rest of the Tai Dam community hold the late former Iowa Governor Robert Ray who put out the state’s welcome mat for Southeast Asian refugees.

“Once, I had the opportunity to appear with him at a refugee event at a church,” she said. “He called me personally to ask if I needed a ride. And afterwards, he sent me a handwritten thank you note. He had that gift of a real human touch.”

So does she, it’s clear to see, whether virtually or mask-to-mask.

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