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Hospital Gives Ailing Children Chance to Study

Shriners Hospital pays attention to the special needs of kids whose attitude, behavior and ability may be affected by their discomfort.

August 20, 2003|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

One pupil was rolled in by wheelchair. Another entered on foot, trailed by a machine that monitored drainage from her wounds. Another arrived in a hospital gown, pushing a walker. And still another tapped a cane for the blind as she walked.

Every weekday morning, shortly after 8, patients at Shriners Hospital for Children in Los Angeles take a short elevator ride and move around a hallway corner to their school.

Their one-room Hospital School operates out of an atrium with shiny parquet floors and kite-like paper sculptures hanging from the skylights. And behind its cheerful atmosphere is a philosophy that children recovering from severe illnesses and terrible accidents should be offered a chance to learn and the special attention that takes.

The two teachers and two teacher's assistants at the school work under a program of the Los Angeles Unified School District. They are trained in special education, with emphasis on children with orthopedic deformities and burns.

They and the instructors at the district's two other hospital schools in Los Angeles are sensitive to the way youngsters' medical conditions might affect classroom attitude and behavior.

A child in a wheelchair who feels uncomfortable is not going to have as much concentration to solve a math problem as a pupil without the discomfort would, said Marianne J. Diehl, assistant principal of the district's Carlson Home Instruction Program and Hospital School, a temporary school service for students who are injured or too ill to attend school. "These classes have multiple children on multiple levels, with multiple skills and multiple disability," she said.

Recently, 15 students of various ages from five countries -- Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, South Korea and Vietnam -- were enrolled in the school at the 60-bed Shriners medical facility west of downtown Los Angeles.

Some had been undergoing free treatment there for many months.

"I love to go to school," cooed Minh Tam Ha, 9, a native of Vietnam. She lost her sight in both eyes in a house fire in her homeland two years ago and has been at Shriners nearly a year. An older sister, also badly burned, is being treated there too.

Minh Tam has learned to speak flawless English and play the keyboard, which she keeps by her hospital bed. A hospital staff member was moved to tears when she heard Minh Tam play "Silent Night."

"I want to be a teacher," said the girl, who was wearing a T-shirt with the message "I am the Boss."

Her teachers are impressed with her intelligence, motivation and high spirits.

The Vietnamese child also works with Braille teacher Michael David Ramos several times a week. Sometimes they use "My Smell Book," which enables Minh Tam to scratch and sniff surfaces to detect different scents.

"It's a joy to work with her," Ramos said. "She's ready to go. She is so motivated."

L.A. Unified has 28 teachers for its hospital schools program, which began in 1946. UCLA Medical Center and Childrens Hospital also have such schools, in addition to Shriners. Cedars-Sinai and Kaiser Permanente medical facilities can request hospital teachers as needed

For the half-day sessions at Shriners, elementary pupils occupy one side of the 20-by-60-foot room, and secondary students the other. The middle is used for special instruction, such as individual teaching of Braille, and for recreational activities.

On a recent Friday, elementary students worked on individual and group math, heard teacher Manuel Rangel read a story, watched a video about the Monterey Bay Aquarium, did arts and crafts and had language lessons.

Rangel, a special education teacher, and his assistant, Rosie Hernandez, frequently spoke to the students in English and quickly translated what they said into Spanish and vice versa.

In the secondary school group, teacher Maggie Ku, who speaks Korean, paid special attention to two burn victims from South Korea, who spoke hardly any English.

One of them, Min Cha, is a fifth-grader, but he was placed with Ku in the secondary school to avoid a language barrier.

"English is very hard," Cha said, as he wrote his name in English for a visitor.

Each week, Ku gives her students 15 new English words to memorize. She then asks them to use the words to fill blanks in sentences.

Except for a short break, Ku's students were kept busy from 8:30 a.m. until after noon. They read, studied spelling, wrote in their journals, did math and studied language, art, science and social studies.

Unlike regular school, where most children go through the entire academic year at the same campus, the Hospital School sees its population change all the time. Such changes pose a challenge to the teachers.

"One day you could have 10 kids, the next day seven and the following day three new kids," said Diehl, the program official.

Some youngsters attend Hospital School for three weeks, others several months, still others close to a year.

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