Under the weather, on top of their schoolwork

Jan. 1, 2007, midnight | By Laura Mirviss | 14 years ago

Home tutoring provides support

As she lay awake in bed, junior Kät Wurzbacher's body began shaking out of control. The muscle contractions - a side effect of her medication - often lasted for hours, leaving her exhausted by the time they finally passed. All she could do was wait for the spasms to end. The contractions had been occurring for the past month, making it impossible for her to do her homework or attend school for weeks.

In addition to the body spasms, the medications she was taking to treat her illness had weakened her immune system. She was always tired, and she slept most of the day. As her health deteriorated, Wurzbacher realized that school was no longer an option. Her family began to explore alternative teaching methods, turning to the Home and Hospital Teaching program (HHT) to help Wurzbacher earn high school credit from home while she recuperated.

HHT is designed for students who are unable to attend school because of a physical or emotional condition. A minimum of six hours of instruction, provided by part-time MCPS teachers, in the student's home or even from a hospital bed, is required per week. Course offerings include English, social studies, mathematics and science.

Between 12 and 15 Blair students with severe illnesses participate in HHT each year, according to Blair liaison and school nurse Virginia Custer. Other students opt out of the program, finding alternative means of making up work or receiving the credits required for graduation. In either situation, with the added pressure of trying to complete high school from home, long-term illnesses can test the physical and emotional limits of students and their families.

Too sick for any school

Some students are unable to participate in HHT because of the nature of their symptoms. Junior KayCee Tucker decided not to enroll in the program because she left school at the beginning of fourth quarter. Instead, administrator Patricia Hurley froze her grades at the beginning of April, allowing her final grades for the second semester to trend so Tucker would not have to take final exams.

Tucker had long suffered from an abnormal menstrual cycle, but thought nothing of it until last January, when her cycle began to spiral out of control. Her period lasted for four months straight, through the end of April, causing her body's iron levels to plummet to about half of the normal amount.

One month after the problems began, in early February, Tucker began having problems sleeping through the night. Running on only one to two hours of sleep, she was exhausted during the day and often fell asleep in class. To compensate, she went to sleep earlier and earlier. At the end of March, two weeks before Tucker left school, she was falling asleep when it was still light outside - as early as 3:30 in the afternoon. Completing her homework was impossible, and by the beginning of April, Tucker stopped going to school altogether. By late May, she was sleeping between 21 and 22 hours per day, waking up only to eat and take her medication.

It was hard for her to do the simplest tasks - she could barely manage the walk to the bathroom. One morning, Tucker almost passed out in the shower.

The school gets involved

Programs like HHT exist to help teens like Tucker cope with long-term illnesses. As an HHT instructor for 11 years and the former president of the Home and Teacher's Association, Emily Ackerman has met students with a wide range of problems. She has dealt with drug dealers, victims of gun violence, cancer patients, students undergoing major surgeries, students with cystic fibrosis and students with psychological disorders.

Though teaching students with serious illnesses is often challenging, Ackerman finds the experience rewarding. "The kids I have for over a year I get quite close to. I'm so proud of them," she says. "They have overcome so many hard moments."

Wurzbacher started the program the week after winter break, hoping she would be well enough to return to school for second semester. She found the program helpful but not perfect. "It's not nearly the equivalent of being in the classroom, but one-on-one attention made up for a lot of it," she explains. Her tutors - one for math and science, another for English and social studies - talked to Wurzbacher's teachers to find out what she was missing in class so she could make up the work.

However, Wurzbacher studied Latin independently, reading chapters out of her textbook. A few weeks after she left school, Wurzbacher began to return to school every morning for Latin class. "One class - I could handle that," she says. Taking Latin, Wurzbacher says, helped her transition back into a full-time schedule second semester as her health gradually improved.

For senior Michael Novello, HHT was just what he needed to jump-start his recovery. Novello participated in the program all of second semester last year, working with tutor Arnette Holloway in English and World History to earn the two credits he needs to graduate.

Novello was going through a particularly difficult period with a mental illness, so he wasn't sure he felt up to even basic schoolwork. He was initially ambivalent about the idea of HHT, and he tried to find excuses not to participate. When he met Holloway, however, his perspective changed. Now he calls his tutor and the program "the best education I've had - even though I'm out of school."

Novello says Holloway was a passionate teacher who loved what she did. He thought the program was going to be "sit down, here's the curriculum, now do it," but instead, at their first meeting, Holloway asked what Novello was interested in. He told her he was working on a surreal theater play with Lumina Studio Theatre, a local drama troupe. Holloway, a former professional actor, was delighted by Novello's interest. "She completely went with it and had as much fun as I did," he says. The two worked together three times a week for two hours. As the weeks passed, Novello began to feel better, and soon he could do a good amount of homework between each meeting.

Emotional drain

After a month out sick from school, Wurzbacher grew lonelier. "It was so frustrating being in the house with my mom all day. I love my mom, but that's a lot of time," she says.

Wurzbacher also began to worry about the social experiences she was missing. "No one realizes how much human contact means and how much you miss it," she says. "There are all these little experiences in hallways, lunch and group projects. I felt out of touch with the rest of my friends."

On weekends, Wurzbacher was only able to visit her friends for limited periods of time. She savored their scattered phone calls and visits, but it wasn't the same as interacting with them in school, and she regrets missing so many day-to-day experiences. "There would be little impromptu things after school that I wouldn't know about," she says.

During this time, Tucker's relationships also suffered. "It wasn't like my friendships deteriorated - it was more people didn't want to ask questions. I wasn't talking to anyone except my parents for a while," she says. "As I got sicker, I got really sad."

The prolonged isolation was also difficult for Novello, which made him appreciate his tutor even more. "That was why Arnette was such a great friend," he says. "She was a friend who would come on a regular schedule, and I knew she would always be there."

Prepping for a fresh start

With the help of her tutors, Wurzbacher worked to get ready for a full return for second semester. Lewis Burley, Wurzbacher's math and science tutor, worked tirelessly to help to ready her for Precalculus. The two worked up to four hours a day the week before she went back to school to ensure that she was prepared.

Wurzbacher was inspired by her tutor's extra help and support. "He put in a lot of extra time with me, which I really appreciated," she says. "He did more time than the county required." Though Wurzbacher doesn't enjoy math, Burley's energetic attitude helped make the long hours pass quickly. "He was always encouraging me, even if I was having a bad day. If I didn't remember basic things, we went over problems over and over again," she says.

Ackerman says most of the students she has worked with have been hardworking and driven. "It amazes me when kids really, really try," she says. "I taught a student with bone cancer the day before he died. He was still trying. He was on a breathing tube, and he was still doing his work."

Returning to school

Though she had studied hard to prepare for her return to school, Wurzbacher was nervous to come back after such a long absence. She didn't know how to respond to her classmates' questions about her absence, and she had difficulty curbing her anxiety about her lack of human contact. "I didn't know what people would think of me," she says. "I didn't know what to tell them, because it was a private, personal issue."

The transition back to school was easier than Wurzbacher expected. Her first quarter back, she got almost all As. Wurzbacher is especially proud of her A in math. "That A made me feel really good after all those hours of work," she says. A few weeks into the quarter, Burley called to see how she was doing. "He was really glad to hear I did so well," Wurzbacher says.

Laura Mirviss. Laura Mirviss is far more excited than she should be about being on the Chips staff this year. She loves field hockey, lacrosse, The New Yorker, and Ben and Jerry's. When trying to keep things in perspective, Laura likes to remember the words of Ferris … More »

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