When Robert A. Mehl walked through the doors of Stemmers Run Middle School in Baltimore County four years ago, he was going where few men dare to tread.
He had been hired as the school's nurse and, according to the state Department of Education, is the only man holding that job at a public school in Maryland.
A dark-haired 29-year-old with an easygoing style, Mr. Mehl said Stemmers Run students -- even the girls -- were not bothered by talking about their health concerns with a man.
"It is the relationship with the kids that matters," said Mr. Mehl, a married father of three who lives in Carroll County.
Middle school can be a traumatic time for children because their bodies undergo the physical changes of puberty. When Mr. Mehl was interviewing for the position, there was concern over whether girls would feel comfortable talking to him about "the female problem," he said.
To make sure students feel comfortable with him, Mr. Mehl interacts with them in day-to-day situations -- participating in a reading program, going into classrooms to talk about health issues and simply standing in the hallways talking to the young people as they go from class to class.
While school nurses in Maryland cannot dispense medication, Mr. Mehl said the job goes well beyond doling out hot-water bottles and providing bandages.
This year he helped nursing students from Towson State University plan a health fair for his students. There were exhibits on health issues, and children were screened for blood pressure and, if necessary, referred for more thorough checkups.
In addition to taking care of the injured and the sick, Mr. Mehl also keeps track of compliance with immunization laws, monitors the school environment for safety and gives students information on health issues.
"I can't make anyone be healthy," he said. "But I think middle school is where you make the most difference. I hope to open their eyes to the choices they have. By the time they get to high school, their minds are made up."
Mr. Mehl is a "a very, very dynamic individual," said his boss, Principal Dwayne W. Johnson. "He has taken school nurses out of the rim of putting Band-Aids on cuts. He has put the focus on health issues. Being in a classroom is very important to him."
According to the principal, Mr. Mehl takes the initiative to keep up with what is being taught in the classroom so he can supplement the lesson with health issues. If students are learning about the Renaissance, for instance, Mr. Mehl will talk about the important health issues during that time in history.
Mr. Mehl and the school's home economics teacher also recently received a state grant to teach a class on prevention of teen-age pregnancy to sixth-graders twice a week.
The idea to go into nursing came from Mr. Mehl's mother.
"She enjoyed her job so much," he said. And since there was a severe nursing shortage, it seemed to be a stable line of work to enter.
Because he is a man working in a field of few men, it is a choice that has raised eyebrows along the way. As a student at the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1984, Mr. Mehl said people would ask him why he chose to be a nurse instead of a doctor.
"Doctors deal more with diseases and treatment," he said. "I wanted to work more with people."
His first job was at University Hospital in the pediatric intensive care ward. He remained there for about two years but left after he and his wife started having their own children.
"It was hard for me to maintain my professional detachment," he said. "Plus I wanted to be in preventive medicine."
From there he went to the Carroll County General Hospital, where he worked in the adult intensive care ward. That job entailed nursing many elderly people.
"Most of our patients were around 89 years old," he said. "And most went from our unit to heaven."
So he finally listened to his friend Shirley Steel, the health services coordinator for the Baltimore County public schools. "She kept saying, 'You really need to come here,' " Mr. Mehl said.
Because a school nurse works in an independent setting, Mr. Mehl had initially turned down Ms. Steel's request because he wanted more experience working with supervision.
Ms. Steel said she liked the idea of bringing in a male nurse.
"I thought he could be a good role model for our adolescents, plus he demonstrated the commitment, knowledge and many of the qualities I wanted in a school nurse," Ms. Steel said.
Ms. Steel is delighted with Mr. Mehl's work. "He truly was the best candidate," she said. "I wish I could clone him."
As for the students, they say Mr. Mehl is merely one of the adults they see at the school.
"He's very good because he's not mean," said eighth-grader Tony LaChat, who recently dropped in to see the nurse because of a sore throat.