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Living, learning for the moment

Abraham's life is medically fragile. But says teacher Jo Ann Goldrich: "It's magic every time I'm with him.''

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 2, 2002

The final story in our three-part series about students who miss school because of serious illness or accident focuses on a child whose home is a hospital room. Abraham Rogers, 8, is a quadriplegic with dwarfism whose parents live out of state. He is mentally handicapped. He is unable to speak and breathes through a tube in his throat. At night, he is connected to a special machine that helps him breathe while he sleeps. Considered "medically fragile," his condition is monitored around the clock by nurses at Kindred Hospital in St. Petersburg. Despite his physical challenges, a teacher with Pinellas County schools' homebound/hospital program visits him twice a week to help him develop ways to communicate his needs to his caregivers.

* * *

As 112,000 Pinellas County students leave for school each morning, 125 to 200 remain in their homes or hospital rooms, suffering from broken bones, traumatic brain injuries and catastrophic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.

Many recover and eventually return to school. But about 40 -- including some who live in hospitals or nursing homes and depend on ventilators and respirators to stay alive -- may never see the inside of a traditional classroom.

Twenty-two full-time teachers from homebound/hospital, a Pinellas County schools' program that educates students who miss two or more weeks of school, are responsible for instructing them. Often, they adjust their curriculum to focus on what is important, homebound supervisor Kay Blair said. They may forgo a geometry lesson to help a terminally ill child write a poem or a journal entry as a remembrance for a parent or loved one.

When is a student too sick for the program?

"When hospice calls and says, "We don't want the teacher anymore,' we back off," Blair said. "It's not our place to say who deserves this service. The idea is to serve all children."

* * *

Time for school: On most Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Jo Ann Goldrich finds Abraham Rogers sitting in a wheelchair in his room waiting for her. If he has had a difficult night, the 8-year-old is still in bed, surrounded by equipment that monitors his vital signs. She greets him and tells him it's time for school. Even on the bad days, he returns her greeting with his eyes and his smile. Abraham, who is a quadriplegic with dwarfism, has lived at Kindred Hospital, 3030 Sixth St. S, since he was a baby. His medically fragile condition requires 24-hour care. Ms. Goldrich believes his educational requirements also deserve attention. "His needs are significantly different from a typical second-grader's because where he spends his life is significantly different," she said. Planning lessons for Abraham "is like tailoring a glove to his hand rather than buying a size 5." She has taught him to use eye gaze to communicate choices, such as what he wants to wear and whether he wants to ride to the classroom at the end of the hall in his wheelchair or in a red wagon. "It's all to make him more interdependent," she said.

* * *

Seeking a connection: Ms. Goldrich knew three years ago when she began working with Abraham that in spite of a master's degree in aural rehabilitation, she would have difficulty making a connection with him. The first challenge was getting him to look at her when she was speaking to him. The next challenge was devising a method to get him to "talk" to her. She created "yes" and "no" signs and worked with him until he understood he could rest his gaze on one or the other to communicate his preferences. The continuing challenge, she says, is igniting the spark she sees in his luminous chocolate-colored eyes. How does she know she has succeeded in reaching him? "Because of the things he laughs at and because of his facial expressions and reactions. Because of the determination he shows when he's trying so hard to do something. Because of what his soul shows me when he looks me in the eye -- the sad things and the happy things. All of it."

* * *

'A meaningful part of life': Holding up a photo of Abraham, Ms. Goldrich asks the child, "Is this a picture of Abe? Yes," she says, nodding her head emphatically, "this is a picture of Abraham." She maintains a running dialogue with him throughout their 40-minute sessions, keeping her eyes locked on his. She spends at least two hours of "think time" each night, creating lesson plans and yardsticks for measuring her students' progress. Her biggest challenge in her fifth year as a homebound instructor, she says, is trying to create a classroom environment for children who live in a hospital. "It's so important for kids to be with other kids. These kids can't be. It's kind of like being in a bubble. I want them to have a meaningful part in life, in their community, even if their community is a hospital."

* * *

Working for tomorrow: Although some may ask why homebound teachers work with children who probably will never experience the world outside a hospital, Ms. Goldrich is convinced that keeping a routine and maintaining expectations for medically fragile students, no matter how limited, is critical. "There is no crystal ball, no predetermined time," she said. "We're working into an immediate tomorrow, not a tomorrow way down the line. We're making the lives they have as fundamentally relevant as possible." And even when progress with children like Abraham seems infinitesimal, she said, the rewards are bountiful. "Teaching him is an absolute joy. It's magic every time I'm with him. The best thing is when he gets something, (seeing) the joy on his face. The greatest part is just being able to be with Abe."

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