Beyond the classroom: Staying in touch

A pilot program links up hospitalized children with their classrooms to see friends and keep up with school studies.

Maayan Dabush, a trainer for the Regine Sixt School 521 (photo credit: (Courtesy Hadassah Medical Center)
Maayan Dabush, a trainer for the Regine Sixt School 521
(photo credit: (Courtesy Hadassah Medical Center)
Over the past year, 10-year-old Hallel was hospitalized for three months in Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem’s pediatric hematology and oncology unit. Now that she’s feeling better and heading back to the Noam School in Ramot on August 27, she does not have to worry that the long absence will make her feel awkward. Hallel was part of a pilot program linking hospitalized children at Hadassah to their actual classrooms through the magic of computer technology.
“This was not only about learning,” stresses her mother, Hedva. “She was very sick, so she was not able to keep up well with the academic material, but it made her feel better to be in touch with her friends in class. She was in isolation and couldn’t see them otherwise. And for her friends, who were scared for Hallel, the ability to see and interact with her made them less afraid.”
This fall, thanks to a private fund, the unique initiative will continue under the auspices of the Regine Sixt School for hospitalized children at Hadassah. It’s been dubbed Hibuk im Hakehilla, or “Community Embrace.”
“The idea is not just to give kids who need medical treatment for any long period of time a computer or a ‘hospital teacher,’ as is the current case in many hospitals in Israel,” says Gina-Devra Shaffer, a South African immigrant whose 10-year-old niece, Bracha Gluch, was a patient in the unit some seven years ago. “The virtual classroom connects them with their very own school, their very own teacher and – most importantly – their very own friends.”
Shaffer shares a photo of herself as a bride in early 2005 with her arm around little Bracha, who is bald and bloated from her leukemia treatment regimen.
Now a healthy and energetic child, Bracha was hospitalized just before and again right after her aunt and uncle’s wedding in Jerusalem. She’d been diagnosed the previous October.
“We pulled Bracha out of kindergarten and so she didn’t have any friends,” says her mother, Keren Gluch. “And it’s even worse for older kids. No matter how many people come to visit, it’s not the same thing. You’re in a world of your own at the hospital.”
That’s why she reacted enthusiastically when Dr.
Michael Weintraub, head of the unit, approached her about funding Community Embrace. The pediatric oncologist was aware that Gluch and Shaffer had long been searching for an appropriate beneficiary of wedding gift money set aside by Gina and Ben Shaffer for children with cancer.
“We were organizing a beautiful wedding and starting a new life, but we really had a heaviness in our hearts and wanted to turn it into something positive, so we asked people to donate money instead of giving gifts,” says Shaffer, whose brother, Hillel, is Bracha’s father.
A small fraction of the NIS 26,000 went toward supplies for a volunteer artist to decorate new treatment rooms with cheerful paintings of animals and butterflies.
The remaining money sat waiting for the right opportunity over the next few years, during which time each of the sisters-in-law gave birth to three children. About two months ago, Weintraub broached this newest idea, and both women agreed immediately.
“A program like this gives you a connection with your classmates and also the hope that you will go back to that classroom one day,” says Gluch. “On the other side, it gives the children a way to keep up a connection with the sick child.”
Weintraub explains that the pilot for Community Embrace resulted from many years of planning by the Regine Sixt School and was made possible by a onetime grant and the donation of support services by the medical center’s information technology department.
“We have teachers in the hospital for children who feel well enough to study,” he says. “But being in school is more importantly a social experience, and the beauty of this is that children can be in touch with friends from school in the normal environment of the classroom, even while they’re in isolation.”
Because hospitalized children are often occupied by treatments and do not feel well much of the time, the educational benefits of the virtual classroom setup are minimal. Each one gets an individual education plan to work on with the hospital-based teacher, who sits with the children while they connect to the classroom.
However, says Maayan Dabush, the main trainer for the project, the children can identify which subject areas most interest them and, whenever possible, the hospital staff helps them sign on when those lessons are being taught. “One boy in isolation for four months was interested in math. He wasn’t able to do all the exercises with his class, but he followed it well enough to keep up,” she says.
Dabush goes to each participating classroom to train the teacher and assist with the technology. “The schools are very eager to participate because they want to know how to connect with the sick child. And we can help them,” she explains. Implementing the system is not as simple as setting up Skype, though. Staff from Hadassah provide training, installation of hardware and software, and ongoing support. The hospital and classroom teachers maintain communication with one another.
Weintraub explains that the staff is already acquainted with the teachers and classmates of every school-age patient on the unit.
“For every newly diagnosed child who is expected to be treated for a long time and suffer a major disruption of life, we have a forum where we invite the community school teacher and principal to meet with a staff physician, nurse, psychologist and social worker to exchange information about the disease, about the child and about the child’s previous experience in school,” he says.
“A team from Hadassah will go out to give a presentation to the children and teacher about what their classmate is going through, to encourage visits and dispel fears. So we’ve already met them, which makes it easier to present the [Community Embrace] project.”
Dabush adds that the hospital teacher helps sick children make a PowerPoint presentation to tell schoolmates about their illness in their own words.
“And then we see that the connection between the kids is strong even though it’s over the Internet,” she says.
“All hospitals have some contact with the classroom teacher but we’re the only one to have a program that is totally interactive, and the child has control over what he wants the kids to see and hear,” says Mira Klafasulain, Regine Sixt School’s coordinator.
“Children in the hospital have many fears, and a connection to their natural environment helps to relieve their fears. This computer becomes theirs for the duration of the treatment, so they can take it home and use it in any way they want,” she says.
Because many of Jerusalem’s schools do not have the requisite technology, the hospital also assumes the cost of purchasing all the equipment. That pushes the cost of the project to about NIS 18,000 per child. The Shaffer fund can only cover about one and a half children, though 10 would like to participate.
“I don’t want this project to fall short,” says Shaffer, which is why she’s actively soliciting donations to the Gina and Ben Shaffer Fund of the Pediatric Hemato-Oncology Unit at Hadassah University Hospital.
“As we do it more often and have a steady supply of [loaner] computers, we may be able to bring the cost down,” says Weintraub. “This is just the beginning.”
“Our dream,” says Klafasulain, “is to receive computers with more sophisticated cameras that can be installed in the classroom permanently so the child can be connected any time.”
As for Bracha, she has twice donated many inches of her hair to Zichron Menachem to make wigs for children going through chemotherapy. She smiles when asked about the project for which she was the inspiration. “I think it’s important,” she says. •