The Healer

By Lonnie Harp — April 01, 2001 10 min read
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Medford is a teacher that no kid wants. If you’re on his roster, it means you’ve been admitted to one of the nation’s top hospitals for the treatment of life-threatening pediatric illnesses.

Dennis Medford is tracking down an 11th grader’s homework tucked in a book bag upstairs. He catches the elevator, then breezes down the hall toward the student’s room. The 57-year-old fits the stereotype of your typical jovial teacher, the kind who wears tennis shoes and trades wisecracks with teenagers he passes in the hall. But the building he’s striding through is a hospital, not a school. And his happy demeanor evaporates after he reaches his destination.

A sign on the door stops him: “No Visitors Except Family. Please See The Nurse Before Entering.” Eyeing the cracks between the blinds on the door’s window, he notices the room is dark. He walks to a desk where a nurse is on the phone and waits with his hands in his pockets. Keys and pocket change jingle as the long seconds pass.

Medford has hovered anxiously near the sickbeds of most of the students he’s had over the past nine years. As one of two full-time teachers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, he instructs kids who are fighting leukemia, tumors, and other life-threatening illnesses. His own classroom is not far from a nurse’s station just like the one he’s standing in front of.

The nurse finally gets off the phone. Medford asks about the sign, clearly braced for bad news. The student, after all, just finished two days of full- body radiation in preparation for a bone-marrow transplant. It turns out she and her mother are exhausted and simply don’t want visitors. Medford nods with relief. He walks over and splits the blinds to look into the girl’s dark room.

“She’s asleep, and her mom’s asleep,” he says, quietly. “I’ll get the homework later.”

Medford is a teacher that no kid wants. If you’re on his roster, it means you’ve been admitted to one of the nation’s top hospitals for the treatment of life-threatening pediatric illnesses. And because St. Jude is a research facility, its doctors routinely take on severe cases. Medford’s students have been whisked away from their normal lives for surgeries, doses of radiation and chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, and other often-painful procedures. For conditions like leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, survival rates range from 80 to 90 percent. But among those suffering from neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system, only 56 percent survive.

If Medford is your teacher, it means you’re someone like Kayla Dyer, a 13-year- old from Dresden, Tennessee, who nicked her foot at a swimming party in June 1999. When the cut wouldn’t heal, doctors determined that she had leukemia. It’s late autumn of 2000, and she’s back in Memphis to get treatment for a relapse.

Offering compassion and hope, and giving a teenager companionship during his or her struggle, are essential elements of Medford’s lesson plans.

Kayla sits in a chair in Medford’s classroom—an office space dominated by a cabinet painted with tropical scenes (the hospital’s decoration) and pictures of sports cars on the walls (Medford’s contribution). Her face hovers over a piece of paper as she and her teacher work through pre-algebra problems. She’s one of 14 middle and high school students whom Medford, a former special education teacher in Memphis public schools, tutors in one-on-one sessions twice a week. He usually hands out assignments faxed by a student’s hometown school, then spends most of his time dwelling on those subjects the student finds challenging.

Cathy Dyer, Kayla’s mother, says that although her daughter isn’t a big fan of schoolwork, these hospital sessions help Kayla feel connected to her classmates. And Dyer likes Medford’s approach. “He gives them a joke and a problem so that it’s not straight homework—whatever it takes to make them laugh,” she says.

The classrooms at St. Jude can be cheerful. Medford has a colleague named Jessie Bradley who teaches elementary level kids, and in her room, at the moment, Lakiedra Hoskins beams as she starts her 1st grade spelling and phonics lessons. “I’m glad to be back at school today,” the 7-year-old says as she puts pencil to paper to write the word “like.”

Lakiedra complained of a stomachache in late July, and within three days, she was leaving her home in Tupelo, Mississippi, for St. Jude, where she was expected to stay for eight months. Doctors have removed her right kidney, which had a tumor, part of her liver, and her adrenal gland. Mary Jean Hoskins says her daughter has responded well to treatment and looks forward to school. “She plays school by herself when we’re back at the apartment. She asks questions and answers them, too.”

As unnecessary as education might seem at a time like this, Laurie Leigh, the hospital’s school director, says the opposite is true. “We’re trying to provide a window of normalcy in a very abnormal situation,” she explains. “For a child, school is normal life. It’s their job. It’s what they do, and we try to provide that. Here, school is a place where kids want to be, and it is a hopeful place.”

Haley Hubbard, a 15-year-old straight-A freshman at Jenks High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that Medford not only helped her keep up with schoolwork during a six-month stay at St. Jude but also helped her cope with a painful and exhausting bout with leukemia. “I loved having school because I got to see Mr. Medford, who always told me funny jokes,” she recalls. “I looked forward to his lectures. He taught me English, math, science, social studies, and, most importantly, how to laugh when I felt like crying.”

Most hospitals that treat kids provide some kind of schooling, according to the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions. School services are usually supplied by the local district, though some hospitals or state agencies pay teachers themselves. At St. Jude, where Memphis teachers have been a fixture for more than 10 years, young patients are considered candidates for the district’s homebound education program. While participation is voluntary, doctors encourage children to attend school during intensive treatments that keep them at the hospital for months at a time.

Over the course of a school year, Medford works with roughly 30 students—some for several weeks, others for months. And because they come from all over the country, the subject matter runs the gamut. Medford quips that while many schools send their textbooks, he never gets to see the teachers’ editions.

“This year I’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius on agony and ecstasy for the first time,” he says. “And the math can really get me sometimes. I’ve had somebody taking geometry every year I’ve been here. Last year, I finally learned it, and so far this year no one is taking it, wouldn’t you know. Sometimes when we’re going through a textbook, they don’t know it, but I’m reading about half a paragraph in front of them.”

But preparing for 14 “classes” simultaneously may be the easiest part of Medford’s job. Offering compassion and hope, and providing a teenager with companionship during his or her struggle, are the more complicated elements of his lesson plans.

The first thing Medford does when he arrives at work each morning is check the patient roster to see if any of his students didn’t make it through the night. “You can see it coming, or you can be totally surprised,” he says. “There’s no way to know.”

On top of a filing cabinet in his office is a manila envelope that arrived shortly after the school year began. Inside is a poem about a teenage girl spending her first Christmas in heaven. It was written by the girl’s grandmother. Glancing at the poem, Medford remembers the student, whom he worked with last year, and her family. “We didn’t get to save her,” he says. “I was real close with them. I’d been to their house.” He shakes his head.

While death is an ever-present concern, it is rarely a topic of conversation in the classroom. Sometimes, however, the subject of medical status does come up. “If they want to talk, we’ll talk about it,” Medford says. “But you learn not to ask questions about how kids are doing without knowing the answers first.”

‘He gives them a joke and a problem so that it’s not straight homework—whatever it takes to make them laugh.’

Mother of Patient,
St. Jude Children’s
Research Hospital

When Medford started this job, not one of his friends or family members had ever battled a life-threatening disease; neither had he. But he’s now been watching girls and boys fight for their lives for nine years. He recalls one former pupil who worked diligently on his school assignments and studied through a relapse to become the first person in his family to graduate from high school. A week later, he died.

“I’ve considered it,” Medford says of quitting the job. “Still do. But I don’t because I think about the kids. They have to go through this. I figure I can take some extra Tums and do it, too.”

While Medford, who’s married but doesn’t have kids, talks about the importance of “compartmentalizing,” it’s clear he’s not very good at separating himself from his students. In his wallet, he carries photos of several St. Jude pupils, and as each school year progresses, so does his use of “stomach medicine.”

“When I first came here, they told me it was important to build some professional distance,” he recalls. “They talked about not buying presents for kids, and I thought, ‘I’ll never do that.’ Of course, three weeks later, I was coming in with ceramic carousel horses because one of my students liked them.”

Medford also spends a lot of time with the hospital’s chaplains. Seeking solace in religion is a natural reflex for many at St. Jude. “Unless someone works in an environment such as this, it’s impossible for them to understand the complex emotions one encounters on a frequent basis,” says Brent Powell, the hospital’s director of chaplains. Long-term employees develop coping skills but still wrestle with the issues that accompany the death of a child. “A person learns to live through those feelings and not let them destroy him or her,” he says.

As passionate as Medford is about his job, he got into teaching by accident. After graduating from Memphis State University with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1966, he took up teaching in Memphis simply because jobs were available. He tried special education for the same reason—it’s where the openings were. But as the years passed, he discovered he’d developed into a career teacher.

Eventually, he was promoted to a job in the district’s central office, but after several years, he realized he wasn’t cut out for being an administrator. Then, in 1992, an opening at St. Jude offered a new opportunity. Without knowing it, he stumbled into a niche where he feels challenged and appreciated. “This is where I was meant to be,” he says now.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that I really do not have any problems, and that money’s not important,” he adds. “Health is important.”

This clear perspective, which pervades the hospital, creates the kind of environment most educators consider ideal. At St. Jude, Medford observes, everyone is focused on getting children exactly what they need, which includes individualized attention. As a result, the kids, whom he calls “the bravest children in the world,” want to learn, and that makes teaching enjoyable.

Last spring, Medford drove more than 400 miles to Heyworth, Illinois, to witness the high school graduation of a student he’d taught in 9th and 11th grades. “I got to see her lose her hair twice,” he jokes. As it turns out, he was the guest of honor at her family’s graduation celebration. The student now keeps him posted on her course work and college adventures by e-mail, to which he quickly responds between classes.

When it comes to coping, Medford relishes the memories of his healthy students as intensely as he mourns those who have died. “I have one friend who tells me to stay distant,” he says. “I say, ‘Right, you come up here and try it.’ ”


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