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Downey Hospital School Offers Patient Lessons


When her class sits down to eat lunch, 14-year-old Jennifer sits with them, but instead of eating her food, she pours it into a tube to her stomach.

Since birth, Jennifer has been unable to eat normally because she was born with a brain dysfunction that prevents her from swallowing food.

At a regular school, Jennifer's actions might draw attention, but during lunch at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital School in Downey, no one seems to notice. It is a school for physically handicapped students between the ages of 3 and 21.

The school, located in the pediatric ward of the county-operated medical center, has been part of the Downey Unified School District since 1962. It was started as a county project in the mid-1930s for youngsters who needed care at the hospital.

Last year, the hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary. It is internationally known for its work in rehabilitating people with disabilities, including severe spinal injuries and nerve and brain damage.

The school district has a contract with the county Board of Supervisors, school Principal Shirley Zanger said. The county provides the building, utilities and maintenance, and the Downey district is responsible for instructional materials and staff. Enrollment usually averages between 45 and 55. About half of the students are in the hospital for rehabilitation due to sickness or injury.

Gary, 15, comes from Monterey Park each day. The former straight-A student is in the head and trauma class.

Gary suffered brain damage in an automobile accident about a year ago and has forgotten everything, said Caleb Wong, the head and trauma teacher. He was also unable to speak. But Wong is feeding sentences written on strips of paper into a computer that reads the sentences aloud and enables Gary to learn them.

Wong considers music to be therapeutic and said he uses it every morning to get students going.

"Gary is like Mel Tillis (a country singer), he stutters so terribly, but he can sing a song. He couldn't say a sentence, but he could sing half a song."

Wong said he works with students at their ability level. "I try to give them a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction of being able to do something, because after an accident, a lot of them feel very depressed, very worthless, because they're not able to do what they used to do. Some couldn't even write their names, couldn't even say their names, and that's very demoralizing."

When Gary first came to the school, he had a low self-image, Wong said. Gary's sentences were incoherent. But now he is coming out of his shell and learning to enjoy life again, Wong said. He beamed as he told the story of how Gary would laugh each time he won at shuffleboard.

Before Gary left for his therapy session, he raised his arms and cupped his hands as if he held a basketball. Wong said that meant Gary wanted to play basketball, probably because Gary had beaten him the day before. But Wong told Gary he must learn his sentences before he could play.

If a child's physical condition prevents him from attending class, a bedside teacher is provided. When his medical condition is stabilized, he is sent to the pediatric ward for rehabilitation, Zanger said. As soon as he can sit in a chair for three or four hours, he is sent to school.

School hours are from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., during which time patients who have been admitted go to occupational, physical and speech therapy. They also have medical, dental and vision appointments, or are scheduled to meet with a psychologist.

All day long, therapists follow a strict schedule in picking up students and dropping them off, but teachers are flexible. They often have to be able to pick up where they left off with a student, Zanger said, making their time with the patient individualized.

"Our primary goal is to get students rehabilitated, and medically stable," Wong said. "Teachers and therapists work together as a team, and share information. We come up with plans that best help the students overcome physical, emotional and behavioral problems."

If you took away the wheelchairs, respirators, helmets and other medical equipment, the four rooms would look like any other schoolroom. On the wall in the preschool classroom are numbers, alphabets and artwork. The elementary, high school, and head and trauma classrooms are filled with audio and visual equipment and computers.

Except for the head and trauma class, which focuses on stabilizing memory, the other classes follow a regular school's curriculum, including reading, math and language arts. High school students receive instruction in career education to assist them in finding a job after graduation.

When the pediatric building was built, doctors thought that the school was an important part of the rehabilitation process and decided to rebuild it in a wing of the pediatric ward, Zanger said.

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