People, Programs, Inspiration
|Robert's Road Back Home|
|The powerful thing about learning is that it can take place anywhere. Whether you’re in school, at home, on vacation... or in the hospital. The bond between student and teacher can be enriching, and for pupils at MESD’s Hospital School Program, it’s no exception. For 15-year old Aloha High School sophomore Robert Hedgepeth, the opportunity to dive into his studies is a gift he will never again take for granted.|
On a winter morning in early February, he awoke feeling weak. By the next day he couldn’t move his arms and legs. Diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, Robert’s life changed overnight. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, only 1,400 cases occur annually in the United States.
Admitted to the Legacy Emmanuel Hospital Pediatric Rehabilitation Unit on February 23rd, Robert is making an amazing recovery. Each day, he says, he is regaining mobility in his arms and legs. He is using his hands to write and draw when just a few weeks ago he couldn’t hold a pencil. “I wake up every morning and my fingers aremoving more. It’s like Christmas,” he says.
And each day he keeps up with his studies by attending class with MESD Hospital School Program Teacher Julia Lightell and Educational Assistant Annabella Davis.
On blustery spring day in early April, Robert is once again a normal high school student. It’s just that the learning is taking place in the Hospital School classroom. More like a large office, the classroom has just one worktable and a couple of desks against the wall. It’s the perfect environment for Julia and Annabella to tutor one-on-one with students in a close and comfortable setting.
As Annabella works on a computer a few feet away, Robert and Julia pour over a textbook. They engage in easy conversation. Smiles and laughter flow like water. It’s easy to tell they have a good relationship. While today’s math lesson is not his favorite subject, Robert has a tremendous work ethic that helps him persevere through the lesson in algebra and trigonometry. When it comes to science, Robert is a voracious and self-motivated learner. “Human anatomy, science kind of stuff…I dig that and I love to draw,” he said.
Robert is a funny guy. Like John Stewart funny. Like morning drive time DJ funny. Quips and one-liners spring from his mind like sunshine on a spring day. No one is safe from his wit. He’s got humorous observations on hospital food, physical therapists, his friends back in Aloha, his doctors and his teachers. Some can’t be repeated but it’s all in good fun.
It’s also a great sign to Julia and Annabella.
“Robert’s got a really great family. He’s got a great mom and dad who are really supportive. Just from my outside observation, I think that probably has a lot to do with his attitude.” For a young man with an irrepressible personality, one would think his current limitations would be an unbearable weight. But it’s just the opposite. Robert has no use for self-pity. He is realistic about the rehabilitation he faces but is also thankful for the prognosis that he may make a nearly complete
Julia, a Chicago native and graduate of Reed College and Columbia University, discovered her niche in special education while working at a residential hospital for medically fragile children in Manhattan. When she moved back to Portland in 2004, she was looking for a job in a hospital and stumbled upon MESD’s ad for a hospital schoolteacher. Pat Haley, coordinator in the Department of Health and Social Services, jumped at the chance to gain a staff member with her background. Not many teachers, he says, come with experience working in hospital or medical settings. She started at Dornbecher, working in a team of teachers. When the need arose to have a instructional leader at Emmanuel, Pat knew she was the right person for the job.
Children stay at the rehab unit anywhere from three weeks to four months. Although the teachers know in advance who is going to be on the floor on any given day, they have to be flexible with their daily schedule. Things can change on a moment’s notice. But the goal always remains the same: get each child back home and back into school.
Julia and Annabella find themselves in the midst of an emotional roller coaster each day. Yet they remain resolute and calm, an anchor of stability in a sea of tragedy and dashed hopes or resilience and triumph. “You see kids pass away sometimes. It’s gut wrenching, really emotional, but your also see kids making real progress,” said Julia. “We work with kids who face a lot of fears. It is the team’s job to prepare the children to understand and be ready for what they might face.” Julia says that sometimes they must be the bearers of tough news about the reality of life after a tragic illness. “At the time we are working with kids, they are on the brink of a new reality. Their lives as they once were lived have changed dramatically. The child is not what he once was.”