Children’s Hospital Oakland receives grant to help childhood cancer survivors return to school

Children's Hospital Oakland officials, doctors and patients accept a $100,000 donation from Hyundai Hope on Wheels. Photo courtesy Children's Hospital Oakland.

Children's Hospital Oakland officials, doctors and patients accept a $100,000 donation from Hyundai Hope on Wheels. Photo courtesy Children's Hospital Oakland.

Last week, the Hyundai Motor Company presented Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland with a $100,000 grant to support the Children’s Oncology School Reintegration Program, which helps pediatric cancer survivors return to school following treatment.

A multi-disciplinary team including psychologists Dr. Dina Hankin and Dr. Pamela Orren, as well as neuropsychologist Dr. Seth Ubogy and several social workers, helps patients achieve academic success in spite of missed classroom time or decreased cognitive abilities resulting from cancer treatments. The team provides psychological and academic screening to children re-entering school, works with schools and teachers to ensure that the kids return to supportive classroom environments, and provides home tutoring to help kids bridge the gap between leaving the hospital and re-entering the classroom. According to Orren, a program co-director, the nearly decade-old program assists about 100 newly diagnosed children every year, and is part of the hospital’s larger Psychology Oncology Program.

Children’s Hospital also houses an on-site Oakland Unified School District-accredited institution for patients, and provides home schooling for children who no longer receive inpatient care, but are not yet ready to return to school. “A home and hospital teacher often goes to their homes and gives them classes for about an hour a day or two hours, twice a week—the family and the teacher develop a schedule,” Orren said. “Then, once we determine that they’re healthy enough to go back to school is when this program really steps in and assists the parents in communicating with the schools about how to best treat these kids.”

According to Orren, the school reintegration program takes a “three or four-pronged approach” to support patients and their families as they readjust to academic and social life. Initially, the program’s physicians meet with patients and their families to do a comprehensive educational evaluation. Orren and her team also attend school meetings to create accommodations for students who may have special needs in the classroom following cancer treatment. “It can be things like the ability to wear a hat,” said Orren. “A lot of schools don’t allow that, but for our kids it’s so important.”

Orren and her team also deliver presentations to faculty members about childhood cancer and the cognitive side effects of chemotherapy. Additionally, they try to remove the stigmas associated with cancer by talking directly with students in the patient’s classroom. “These kids often go back to school and are teased because they don’t have any hair or they’ve gained weight or lost weight,” Orren said. “We really go in and try to educate the kids. We’ve found that to be incredibly successful.”

Provided to families at no cost, the program depends entirely on grants and private donations. “Our program has been on the chopping block several times because we are funded by philanthropy,” Orren said. “Dr. Hankin and I bill insurance companies for outpatient therapy services, but insurances companies do not reimburse for school reintegration services. So really, this program wouldn’t exist without grants such as this and philanthropy that we get. These kids and these families would really be at a loss.”

This marks the second consecutive year Hyundai has awarded their “Hyundai Gives Hope on Wheels” grant to the cancer program at Children’s Hospital Oakland. Last year’s grant was presented to the Long-term Oncology Care and Research Program, another subdivision of the Psychology Oncology Program, which reaches out to cancer survivors, and assesses their vocational, medical, psychological, and social work needs.

Orren said she hopes the Hyundai grant and other future funding will help keep the school reintegration services available and accessible. “It’s so thrilling to watch these kids go back to school,” she said. “Often times, Dr. Hankin and I have seen them from the point of diagnosis to the point of school reintegration, and really getting to that point of being able to walk into that child’s school and talk to their peers and educate the staff about what they’ve been through is such a blessing. So my hope is just to continue that and to reach more kids.” 

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