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Hutch School Educates while Families Await Transplants - 2001-08-14

Patients from around the world come to Seattle, Washington to be treated at The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Hutchinson Center performs bone marrow transplants and other procedures that can take three to six months, or even longer, to complete. Patients often move to Seattle with their families, and for their children, or for young cancer patients themselves, the Hutchinson Center provides a school.

The Hutch School is different from other schools in a lot of ways. It's located on the bottom floor of an apartment building for families at the Hutchinson Center, so many students just walk downstairs to get to class. They not only learn together, but gather regularly to talk about personal concerns. And they go on more field trips than most students, because teachers realize their parents may not have the time or energy for sightseeing. Teri Hein is the head teacher at the Hutch School.

"We feel pretty strongly this will be the largest learning experience any of them will ever have, and so we really want to recognize that. We also want to recognize that they need to be able to go back as close as possible to their classmates back home. Wonderfully, they often go home ahead of their classmates at home, in spite of the stressful situation they're under here," she says.

Teri Hein believes that's partly because classes at the Hutch School are small, with plenty of special attention. There are usually no more than a few students in each grade, from kindergarten through the last year of high school. Young patients undergoing treatment receive hospital tutoring, while students attending class also have academic programs tailored to their own needs. For subjects like math or a foreign language, they work individually with community tutors. Other parts of the school day are spent working in larger groups. As part of their language studies, students put out a monthly newsletter called the Hutch Times. Science classes include trips to the Hutchinson Center labs, where the students learn about bone marrow transplants.

"Often some of these volunteer tutors are themselves scientists at the lab. They're the people who are looking at the slides of their dad's blood. Not that they would never tell us that, but there's just a ton of resources here for these kids to learn about. And of course they're totally motivated to learn about it, because it's really about mom and dad, or themselves," she says.

Teri Hein believes students at the Hutch School also learn a lot from each other. "We have kids who've only been home schooled all their lives. We have kids who've only been to private schools in New York City. We have kids who've only gone to public schools in the suburbs. We really think that's one of the best things about our school, is that it puts all these kids in contact with other kids they wouldn't necessarily get to know in their real world," she says.

They also find new sources of support in that diverse group. Bone marrow transplants are risky procedures, and patients can die in the course of treatment. That means young people are dealing not only with homesickness, but anxiety and sometimes loss. Lee Giles is a teenager from Arkansas who says her new friends have helped her get through difficult times.

"I have a friend Annie. She's in Wisconsin right now. Her mom didn't make it, but we'd go up to the roof every night, and we would talk about what we missed about home and give each other moral support and stuff like that. It was real nice," she says.

Lee says she also turns for moral support to her teachers, who act as informal counselors. "If we need one, we just go there and talk to them, and they'd say 'Oh yeah, I've heard about that before,' and 'I hope it works out for you,'" she notices.

Teri Hein says a small community like the Hutch School can't make up for everything students left behind when they came to Seattle. "We don't have a football team. We can't have a prom. What we can offer the high school kidsI'll give them driver's education. I've had a school ship a patient's graduation gown here and her diploma, and got a local private school to let her walk through graduation. We will try to accommodate them as much as possible," she says.

When she came to teach at the Hutch School 16 years ago, Teri Hein says she was afraid the job might be too sad. "It is very, very sad sometimes. It's also such a huge place of hope that I've never considered going anywhere else. People come back once every year for a check up, and often a patient-student will leave, and they have no hair, and they're all swollen up from steroids. And probably the most rewarding moments for me are one year later when they walk in, and I don't recognize them. That's a wonderful change," she says.

Students stay in touch by mail as well. Teri Hein says many have unexpectedly good memories of a time when they learned to cope with some of life's hardest challenges. One former student wrote saying that four years after her father's transplant, he was doing well. And the student said she looked back on the Hutch School as the best time in her life.