Sunday, March 1, 2015

A school principal learns by joining Rachel's journey

Hello, my name is Melissa Whelan Wisk. I am Rachel's principal at Mother Teresa Regional School. Her parents asked me to write a blog entry through the lens of the educator of a pediatric cancer patient, and how we got through the school year together.

A school principal learns by joining Rachel's journey

Hello, my name is Melissa Whelan Wisk. I am Rachel’s principal at Mother Teresa Regional School. Her parents asked me to write a blog entry through the lens of the educator of a pediatric cancer patient, and how we got through the school year together.

Of the things that you never want to hear as a principal, one would be that a student has cancer. Working with Rachel has been an incredible journey. It’s one that I wish we did not have to take, but I think all of us in our school community have learned a great deal about life, faith, and community by walking this journey with Rachel.

Our first concern has always been getting Rachel well. Convincing Rachel of that early on, before treatment really began, was hard. Rachel missed many days for doctor’s appointments and quickly began to feel behind even before she had to stay home for chemotherapy treatments or as a result of the surgery. I remember one conversation where I explained to Rachel that as the principal, I could decide when to give her the report card, and not everything had to be done by the end of the second semester. It took some work to help her understand that the faculty and staff wanted her doing well and feeling well more than they wanted completed assignments.

At some point, the need to let Rachel rest needed to be balanced against the need to have Rachel complete assignments. The faculty worked to determine what assignments were crucial for Rachel to complete to satisfy sixth-grade curriculum requirements. Then, they set deadlines for some of the work so that Rachel wouldn’t get too far behind -- or push off some things that could be done today until tomorrow. Members of the faculty went to Rachel’s house to help her catch up and some assignments were custom created to assess Rachel in a way that fit her circumstance of not being in the classroom.

Even though Rachel was not able to always come to school, she did attend via Skype. We felt that it was important for our students to see how Rachel was doing, and also to let Rachel see her friends even when she was in the hospital. I remember sitting in my office one day and hearing a student say “One minute, Rachel. I need to put you in my locker while I get my books.” Rachel was Skyping in and the student was changing classes with Rachel on the computer screen. We even had Rachel watch the school play via Skype after her surgery.

For the school, this journey has been about balance. We have had to balance Rachel’s health and treatment with the need to have her successfully complete assignments. The balance has definitely leaned to Rachel’s health and so we have done our best to have her complete assignments, stay in touch with the school, and bend a few rules to make it all possible. At the end of the school year, Rachel had successfully completed all assignments to move on to seventh grade.

Next year, she will not be allowed to use crutches around me (ask her to tell the story of how she fell while I was supervising). And she will certainly not be given special treatment in the form of extra throws to try to soak me with water (from her wheelchair she hit the target more than once to get me soaked.) We are looking forward to having Rachel back with us daily. And we will definitely be helping her to raise awareness about pediatric cancer.

Rachel will also be part of the great group of Giants fans in our school (sorry, Eagles), and we are hoping to get Mark Herzlich to help her out because this principal is a crazy Giants fan.

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About this blog
Rachel Kovach, 12, is a seventh-grader at Mother Theresa Regional School in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. She lives in Highlands, N.J., near the Sandy Hook national seashore, with her parents, Mari and Kurt Kovach.

Since first grade, Rachel has been swimming with the Monmouth Barracudas, a year-round competitive United States Swimming Club program. She hopes to continue competitive swimming after her cancer treatment; if not, she envisions coaching someday or maybe a career in medicine. Figure skating and jazz dancing have been big parts of her life. One of the things she hates about being in the hospital is missing her dog Cocoa and her many friends.

Rachel's doctors

These are the key physicians overseeing Rachel’s care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:

Naomi BalamuthNaomi Balamuth, pediatric oncologist, specializes in treating pediatric sarcomas, a subset of solid tumors.



Richard B. WomerRichard B. Womer, pediatric oncologist, led studies of the latest chemotherapy treatment protocol for Ewing’s sarcoma.



John P. DormansJohn P. Dormans, M.D., chief of orthopaedic surgery, is an international expert in the surgical treatment of musculoskeletal tumors.


Timeline of Rachel Kovach’s Treatment

Dec. 3, 2010: Pain in Rachel's right knee is initially diagnosed as tendinitis.

Jan. 20: An MRI reveals a tumor in right leg.

Jan 24: Rachel sees John Dormans, chief of orthopedic surgery at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Jan. 27: A biopsy confirms Ewing's sarcoma.

February to mid-April: Regimens of chemotherapy alternate every other week. The three-drug regimen is given over two days; the two-drug regimen is given over five days.

May 3: Surgery replaces most of the right femur with a prosthesis.

May 5: A Children's Hospital team will help Rachel get out of bed.

May 10 to September: Alternating regimens of chemotherapy are to resume.

Around May 10: Physical therapy will begin in the hospital and continue for at least several months after Rachel goes home.

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