Ellen Lee, wearing a white medical jacket and looking every inch the registered nurse that she is, picked up the two-foot-tall teddy bear and began to brush its teeth with imaginary water and toothpaste. The 12 preschoolers at Kinder Care in Irvine sat cross-legged on the floor and tried imitating Lee's circular brushing motions on smaller bears of their own.
Even though it was just a game of pretend, the lessons behind Lee's visits to schools like Kinder Care are real. And Lee, a registered nurse with 16 years of pediatric experience behind her, takes the lessons quite seriously.
Since September, Lee, through a program sponsored by People for an Irvine Community Hospital (PICH) in cooperation with the soon-to-be-built Irvine Medical Center, has been taking her preventive health care program on the road. Before this school year is over, Lee expects to present her five-part health lessons at 30 preschools.
"This is my eighth school," Lee said. "I am booked solid through December."
One reason Lee's program is so popular among preschools is the cost: It's free to the 26 Irvine preschools, the Irvine and Huntington Beach Headstart programs and two Costa Mesa Headstart programs chosen to participate in the project. Funding is provided by PICH.
Basic Health Care
The other reason for its popularity, according to Lee, is that there is a genuine need for a basic health care program at the preschool level.
"I don't care how well-educated the parents are," Lee said, "they still aren't teaching kids the basics."
According to Lee, these basics include such simple things as covering your mouth when you cough, the importance of washing your hands after going to the bathroom, proper teeth-brushing techniques and how to keep from getting head lice and pinworms.
"Lice and pinworms are always a big problem in kids this age," she said. "Here in Irvine--where I live myself," she adds hastily, "there is a lot of lice. It is upsetting to some parents to admit it, but it is a reality. We have a lot of kids here, and in kids this age there is a lot of head-to-head contact, a lot of pretend play with hats. So the lice can be spread from one child to another."
Lee's lectures also include segments on swimming pool safety, heat exhaustion and burns. In addition, she teaches children about the importance of balanced diets and the dangers of putting objects, such as toys or jewelry, in their mouths.
Swallowed Balloons, Toys
"A lot of what I teach are common-sense type things that these kids just aren't getting at home," she said. "During my seven years as a nurse working at CHOC (Childrens Hospital of Orange County) I saw kids who had swallowed balloons, watch batteries, rings, coins and toys. What I stress in my classes is that these kids should not put anything but food in their mouths. That is my basic rule."
By repeating her basic rules in short, 15-minute classes over a period of five days, Lee says that the children, ages 3 to 5, will start to remember and put her rules into practice.
It helps, Lee believes, that she is a nurse; she always wears the white jacket as a "friendly" symbol of medical authority, she says.
Lee's idea of teaching preventive health care to children as young as preschool age grew out of a similar program she taught last year in grade schools in the Irvine Unified School District as part of an internship in her master's degree program at Cal State Long Beach.
"I found that by the time they had gotten into grade school, even into kindergarten, they had already received incorrect information or formed bad habits," Lee said. "So when my internship was up, I began to design a program for preschoolers, hoping that each preschool would be able to pay for my visits."
Agreed to Finance Sessions
But what Lee discovered when she began talking to preschool directors was that they had no money to spare for such a program. That's when she went to PICH, which agreed to donate the $2,400 needed to finance the sessions in the Irvine area and in the Headstart programs nearby.
Reaction to her program from parents and preschool professionals has been good, Lee said.
Andrea Leib, director of the Kinder Care preschool where Lee presented her dental care class, said that after the first three classes, children have already started to use some of the common-sense techniques--like covering their mouths when they cough.
"We try to incorporate things like this in our curriculum," Leib said, "but what she (Lee) does is more complete, more thorough. And I do think it helps that she is a registered nurse. The children respond better."
"My goal," Lee said, "is to reach young children while they are in the earliest developmental stage. If they are taught proper health care techniques at an early age, those habits become automatic and are carried throughout the child's life . . . . I am convinced that many serious illnesses among children could be avoided if basic prevention methods were taught."