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Going back to school after transplant

For children and teens, a transplant means their education can be interrupted and even delayed. That’s what happened to Wendy and her son, Travis, who was a sophomore in high school when he had a blood or marrow transplant. Like most children getting a transplant, Travis fell behind in school. 

“Once we got home from the hospital, Travis had complications,” Wendy said. “But I remember him telling me, ‘Mom, my class won’t graduate without me.’” 

So she wrote a 504 Plan requesting additional assistance with his school, which provided Travis with a tutor. 

“Sometimes, she had to sit on the front porch while Travis was inside,” Wendy recalled. “My job was to communicate back and forth. It was quite the set-up, but we made it work.” After a lot of hard work and determination, Travis was ready to join his classmates for his senior year. 

Some children will need more time before they’re ready to go back to school. This means that they could be a year or two behind other kids their age, and that’s OK. It does not mean you’ve failed. You and your child have been through a lot. But whenever they’re ready, it can help to be prepared.

5 Tips to keep in mind

Sending your child back to school after transplant can come with an array of challenges. To get expert advice, I met with Becky Manes, RN, MSN, CPON. She’s a Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Coordinator at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Here are 5 things to keep in mind when preparing your child to go back to school:

  1. Talk with your child’s school about vaccinations. Your child may not be up-to-date with their vaccinations, and it can take 1-2 years to be re-vaccinated. Some schools may let your child return before they’ve completed vaccinations, while others will not. Ask your child’s transplant doctor to write a letter to explain their situation. Give this letter to the principal, teacher and school nurse. Travis was able to attend school, after a written note from his doctor explained the reason for his lack of vaccinations. Becky advises, “Check with your child’s school about risks because of other unvaccinated children. Your child could be exposed to chicken pox, measles and the seasonal flu. Ask the school to let you know if a child gets any of these illnesses so you can talk with the transplant team.”
  2. Transition your child slowly. According to Becky, this transition can be especially hard, because your child has been with you almost all day, every day. Children (and parents) may experience a bit of separation anxiety. It can also be overwhelming for children to be surrounded by so many people after being isolated for so long. Talk with your child about their concerns. This can help you find a solution. For example, if they don’t have enough energy for a full school day, talk to your child’s school about attending for only a couple hours a day. Then, as they get used to the routine, work back up to full days. Wendy adds that it was also helpful to tell Travis’ school that there would be more absences for doctors visits.
  3. Talk to your child’s teacher about things like limiting time in the sun and staying hydrated. Becky explains, “If your child goes outdoors during school, ask their teacher to make sure they put on sunscreen and to limit their time in the direct sun.” You may also want to chat with them about your child needing more bathroom breaks, more time to take tests, etc. Learn more about your child’s education rights.
  4. Talk with your child’s classmates about transplant and answer their questions. You can ask your child’s teacher or school nurse to explain why your child may look different or why they are only at school for a few hours. You can also prepare your child for answering questions from other kids. For example, they could say something like, “I was in the hospital and had a transplant to treat a disease. Now the disease is gone. I still wear a mask and take medicine to protect me from germs that could make me sick.”
  5. Assess your child’s medicine schedules. Your child may be taking several medicines, with different schedules. Ask your child’s doctor about changing the times your child takes their medicines so that they won’t have to take them while they’re at school. Becky adds, “Some children have ‘as-needed’ medicines, too. Talk with your child’s teacher or school nurse about your child’s medications. Come up with a plan in case they don’t feel well during the school day.”

Travis’ mom, Wendy, says “We like to pretend that we have control over our lives, but we don’t. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You and your child have already been through so much.” Becky adds that “Social workers at the hospital or school can be a good resource to help you with any questions or challenges during this transition period.” 

The Be The Match Patient Support Center offers free education and support: