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Being sick won't get kids out of this school

DCH school 2 0823.jpg
DCH school 0823.jpg
Posted at 11:54 PM, Aug 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-24 14:57:05-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — In many ways, Marie Soza and Sumer Duhon are typical CCISD teachers.

They teach class in the morning. They're multihyphenates: teacher-cheerleader-mom ...

"... social worker-psychologist-chaplain ...," Soza finished.

But instead of sending their kids to P.E., they send them to P.T. Or, in some cases, physical therapy comes to them.

Soza and Duhon are the two fully certified staff teachers at the Driscoll Children's Hospital school, a collaboration between the CCISD and the hospital. Soza has been with the program for 12 years, since it was restarted in 2007 after a lack of funding ended the program, briefly in 2004. But through community and corporate donations, the school is a fully funded classroom on the hospital's eighth floor, outfitted with books, school supplies, and most things a typical classroom has.

And just like all the other CCISD schools, class for the Driscoll students begins on Monday.

And even things one doesn't. Like hospital gowns for 'uniforms.' And physical therapists. And bikes. In the hallways.

"We correlate the kids' school schedules with their medical schedules," Soza said. "So a lot of times they have therapies, and a therapist will come in here and work with them. We're a team."

No, really.

"In (the classroom), physical therapy," Soza said. "(We'll tell them) do two math problems, stand up and down 10 times. Do two math problems, get up and stand up. You've gotta bike around the hallway? Let's do your multiplication tables as you go in the hallway.

"And the therapists will say, to us, 'Can you have them use their left hand?' OK. No problem. OK, you need to use your left hand. And we'll hand them something to 'em -- 'You gotta use your left hand.' "

The only barriers between the kids' numerous hospital caretakers are HIPAA security laws. Doctors, nurses, speech therapists and physical therapists all work in tandem to make sure the whole patient is being cared for. It's natural at Driscoll -- what they like to call "The Driscoll Way" -- that a child's learning is an extension of their care, and that their nurses or doctors help re-enforce what the teachers are trying to accomplish in school.

School also helps normalize their atypical lives.

"School is what they're used to," said Robin Smith, Driscoll's director of patient and family services. "This is their job."

Duhon also believes school helps the children forget about their predicaments and pain, at least for a little while.

"It gives them a good distraction from whatever else is happening -- medically," she said. "It puts their brain working, and not focusing on 'My leg hurts' or 'Oh, I just don't feel good' or 'My head hurts.' "

And both believe their duty of care extends to after their students have left the hospital. They collaborate with the school students attend when they go back home.

Soza has a student who is what she calls a "frequent flyer," a student with a chronic illness that would require the child to be hospitalized off and on for years. She found out the student was failing a class after he had been discharged.

"I'll call the school (and ask) 'Why is he failing English?' " she said. "(And his teacher will say) 'Well, he hasn't done ..."

"He hadn't done anything since February," Duhon finished. "And it was May."

"(So I'll say) send me the stuff he has to make up," Soza said. "And that's what we'll work on."

They get creative with their instruction, once designing a nail-salon 'business' for a very young girl, and making eggrolls and fried rice to teach their students about Chinese New Year. They even made a homemade soy sauce because one of their students' diets didn't allow sodium.

That's another hyphen: dietician.

"Diabetes -- it's 10 o'clock, they have to have their snack," said Soza, "So they take their snack up with them. The nephrology kids, some can -- need -- to drink a lot of water, and some can't drink at all. So you just learn: 'Two problems. OK, drink. Two problems -- gotta drink. Two problems -- you gotta drink.'

Both Soza and Duhon have personal connections to the hospital. Soza lost her 6-year-old son to cancer within its walls, and Duhon was a student who benefited from the school's new life as a seventh grader in 2007. She vividly remembers taking her TAKS test in her hospital bed in the month she was there fighting off simultaneous pertussis and pneumonia. She said, at the time, she never realized she was benefitting from services that she would later pass onto others.

"I just never thought anything about it," she said. "Until here I am being a teacher in a hospital."

For their students who are immunosupressed, or too weak to go upstairs, school comes to them.

"Sometimes all you can do is go read," Soza said. "We have a boy, he's coming back, and I have my 'Hardy Boys' book. So I would go read to him bedside. That's how we got him going. (Another patient) I would go in and read to her, even after hours, I'd just read, and read and read. And she would sleep, and she'd wake up (and say) 'Just keep reading.' "

And seeing their students like that is one of the toughest parts of the job.

"I don't have to go home and grade papers, but I do have to go home and worry about my kids," Duhon said. "What happens when they leave the hospital? You get so close to these kids."

She's only been on the job since January, so she hasn't personally experienced losing a student she worked closely with for an extended period of time.

"I'm terrified for that day to happen," she said.

But through teaching their fragile kids, Duhon and Soza have learned a lot from their kids, too, like strength, laughter, humor and unconditional love.

"The simple things," said Duhon. "To love the simple things. To come up to the eighth floor and be on the highest floor and look out and just simply see the ocean. Because some kids live here, in Corpus, and have never been to the beach. And it is beautiful. The sunrise up here on the eighth floor is beautiful."

"A couple of years ago," Soza said. "I came up and it was early, and the sun was just coming up and it was a medical student. He was looking out the window and he was (seemingly hugging the window), and he said ‘I come up here every morning at sunrise to give thanks for my day. How lucky are we? And I do the same thing now. I get off that elevator and I look out there, and I always say ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for what I get to do, and thank you for what they get to do, for me.' "