The Bedside Classroom: UChicago Students Tutor Patients at Comer's Children Hospital

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by Sydney Paul, AB 12

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, every year over 3 million children are admitted to hospitals in the United States.  The reasons for visits range from neonatal care, to a teenager's broken bone to even cancer treatment. On top of sickness or injury itself, hospital visits are never a fun trip for a child and can be a daunting experience.  It's a foreign world away from the familiar, especially for those kids who remain weeks or months at a time on bed rest or in recovery. 


Chicago is certainly no exception to the rule; however some medical centers in the city try to be more accommodating to their young patients.  Some hospitals have volunteer programs where individuals can come in to interact with the patients in playful settings, as well as in academic capacity.  When children are inpatients for long periods of time, it can be extremely difficult to keep up with school work when while bedridden, your only options are to try to catch up with what material you have, teach yourself, or not do anything at all.  Unfortunately, these kids are usually held back or placed at a selective disadvantage.  At the Comer Children's Hospital, there are fortunately volunteer programs in place that attempt to combat that issue.


The hospital, which is part of the University of Chicago Medical Center, has Chicago Public School teachers come in to tutor patients, however the supply of tutors does not always satisfy the demand of children.  When a few CPS teachers are put in place to help thousands of inpatients, those who are not part of the Chicago Public School system or not from the city unfortunately lose priority on that resource.  Luckily along with the hard-working CPS teachers, there are others who sacrifice their time to help the children.


This past spring, a group of University of Chicago undergraduates got together to form Comer Tutors--a program which strives to create smooth transitions for those kids who are moving from the hospital back into a school setting.  The group, founded by 4th years Joseph Sullivan and Liwen Xu, works in conjunction with the hospital's Child Life Program and regularly visits patients during the week to help them with their academics.  The program is structured around individual, one-on-one tutoring sessions with patients in classroom settings or at their bedside.  And whether the tutors are supplementing material brought from the child's school or bringing other material to match what they've been learning, their presence is making a big impact.


"It's all good having fun and playing with them, but giving them that opportunity to learn and seeing how they react to new things--I love seeing the joy on the child's face" admitted Yasmine Cisse, 4th year and Comer Tutor.  Working with kids ranging from the ages of 5 to 18 years old, tutors can cover subjects anywhere from math and science to history and current events in 30 minute to one hour sessions.  In addition, they work around the child's schedule which has been very accommodating to the patients and comforting to their families.


Comer Tutors usually works with children who are in treatment or recovery periods; they sometimes even work with chemotherapy patients.  Along with the hospitals and families, these undergrads are just another helpful support system for kids who are fighting through one of the most difficult times in their lives.  "It may not necessarily the most fun you have at the hospital but it someone's undivided attention that you have and that helps" said Cissé. 


Yasmine had been volunteering in the playroom at the hospital for many months prior to the establishment of the tutoring program, and believes Comer Tutors are giving the kids something more (and just as important) in addition to academic help.  "We get to spend time with them so that they don't feel so isolated, so tutoring of way of also just having someone with them" said Yasmine. "It's one less thing they have to worry about they get out of the hospital."


Comer Tutors are definitely in a win-win situation.  While the patients are learning from some of the smartest student's in the country, the undergrads are also gaining a one of a kind experience themselves.  Having that kind of impact on a child's life creates opportunities for many unique challenges as well as humbling triumphs.


"Giving them that sense of normalcy and bringing an aspect of their outside life into the hospital is great" said Yasmine.  "Being that you're only with them for an hour and giving them that sense of confidence in their learning is so rewarding."

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Giuliana Rotunno said:

I am a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University and am interested in volunteering as a tutor in the bedside program. I am not a teacher. I graduated as a biomedical engineer. I am applying to medical schools for the 2013 year and am looking for volunteer opportunities working with children. Please contact me if such an opportunity is available in the U of C Bedside program. My home number is 708/442-5134. My e-mail addresses are or Thank you. Giuliana Rotunno

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