Compassionate Care

Where Learning and Recovery Go Hand in Hand

Luis and Keyli find a bit of normalcy in the schoolroom at Shriners Children’s Northern California.

Shriners Children’s hospitals offer academic support to help children thrive during treatment

Amid the sterile operating rooms, high-tech exam rooms and busy nurses’ stations at Shriners Children’s Chicago, there is a large, bright, open space with live plants that serves as a school classroom.

It may be among the most important places in the hospital.

The “classroom” and its Chicago school district teacher, Mary Vokoun-Sommers, are critical to patients’ recovery. It’s one of the many classrooms across Shriners Children’s locations, where our patients can keep up with their coursework while they are at the hospital for treatment. But they can also serve as a refuge in the hospital for children in difficult circumstances, and having that sanctuary provides critical emotional medicine – healing medicine.

“The school is a vital part of our kids’ hospital experience,” says Sue Mukherjee, M.D., the medical director of rehabilitation at Shriners Children’s Chicago. “It helps keep their mind active when appropriate, and it helps connect them with life back at school.”

Empowering young patients through education

While many Shriners Children’s patients receive outpatient care or experience short stays at one of our hospitals, some remain inpatient for weeks or months. The patient may have just experienced a life-changing injury, such as a spinal cord injury or a burn. They may have a congenital condition that requires frequent hospitalization and multiple surgeries. They may be in physical or emotional pain, and they may be frustrated to be stuck in a place they don’t want to be.

Being in the hospital is disorienting and upsetting for anyone, but as parents know, it is worse for children who are more vulnerable and less able to comprehend why they must be there. And it jives with observations psychoanalyst Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, made in the 1930s: Children experience a loss of autonomy and confidence. Time slows for them. Being removed from home, they can feel a sense of abandonment.

In that unsettling environment, the hospital schoolroom is a place where they can find a bit of familiar normalcy.

David Greenhalgh, M.D., chief of burns at Shriners Children’s Northern California, says it is a place that reminds them that they will be going home and back to school eventually – a powerful message.

“It gives them a distraction, and it helps them see that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Greenhalgh says. “They have to heal physically, mentally and emotionally. School helps with the mental and emotional healing.”

Reading, studying and interacting with peers can help alleviate or eliminate feelings of distress, which can impair and delay healing and recovery. This was first observed definitively in patients recovering from heart bypass surgery. But it has since been shown to extend to other injuries and conditions. In 2006, scientists from Yale University reported that it even applies to recovery from surgery. More specifically, their research found that negative emotional states could affect how much anesthesia patients need, how long they are in the hospital and how much function they recover, among other things.

That’s why the classroom at Shriners Children’s holds a special role in providing a sense of normalcy and comfort through the familiarity of dedicated teachers, pencils, books and more. This environment not only nurtures the learning spirit but also brings hope and brightness to each day.

Providing education for healing and success

Barbara Brooks helps Roman stay on track with his studies at Shriners Children’s Northern California.

Many of the largest children’s hospitals have schools within their walls. Shriners Children’s recognized the need for schools early on. By 1938, 15 Shriners Children’s hospitals had teachers on location.

Currently, 11 Shriners Children’s locations have a comprehensive school program. In Montreal, Shriners Hospitals for Children Canada has two teachers, Marie Donato and Leanne Stachecki, instruct in French and English. In Chicago, Vokoun-Sommers sometimes uses high-tech devices to work with patients who need help, including a gaze device that allows patients to type messages using only their eyes.

Mary Vokoun-Sommers and Christina go over a lesson together.

Usually, the schools teach the students’ home curriculum. At Shriners Children’s Northern California, for example, teacher Barbara Brooks, who, like Vokoun-Sommers, is a local school district employee, contacts a patient’s school within the first few days of a patient’s hospitalization and gets information on what the student needs to do. Shriners Children’s Northern California has patients who are in the hospital for months. But even patients who are there for just a week or so can attend school.

When the patient is discharged, Brooks or the hospital’s schoolroom coordinator, Kerry Martini, will visit the child’s school – no matter how far away – to prepare the school and the patient’s fellow students for the patient’s return, as they may be returning in a very different condition than before.

While the healing aspect of education is important, so is the coursework. Patients have had graduation ceremonies in the hospital, and Vokoun-Sommers was once invited by a former patient to attend their eighth-grade graduation. She went.

Brooks says the atmosphere in her classroom tends to surprise visitors. She stands and gestures to her bright, cluttered classroom and the rest of the hospital. “I think visitors are surprised that it is not a depressing place. It’s a happy place. It’s cheerful.”