Lin Tomlinson grew up in St. Charles, but headed to warmer weather when the opportunity to earn her undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University presented itself.  She received her BS in education in 2004, and returned home to the St. Louis area where she enrolled in graduate school.  In 2008, she received her MS in Oral Deaf Education from Washington University Medical School.  And in 2012, Lin landed her “dream job” as a teacher at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  After six months in the classroom, she tells From the Bedside about the patients who have already left a lasting impression.

Lin Tomlinson looks on and Jaci completes her homework in the St. Louis Children's Hospital classroom.

In high school, I used to describe my dream job as running an education program for a children’s hospital.  That’s all I wanted to do, but I didn’t think it existed.  Last year, I moved back to St. Louis and discovered that this job was actually a real thing!  I started as the PRN/substitute teacher, and I almost immediately started covering for another teacher’s leave of absence.  On January 1, I became one of the hospital’s two permanent teachers.

When I was young, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  It’s a connective tissue disorder, and because of this I require joint reconstruction a lot.  When I was a kid, it took so long to figure out what it was.  I went through every atypical diagnosis, every test you could think of.  So I’ve always been comfortable in hospitals.

Growing up, I missed a lot of school and had so many things make school difficult physically.   I’ve always known I was a natural teacher.  My own experiences made me want to tailor those skills to a specialty population – for kids who faced one roadblock or another on the path to a typical education.

I have some understanding of what it’s like to be one of the patients, and that’s something I bring to work every day.

One patient, Jaci, had been here a couple of days before I’d even heard her name.  I knew from documentation she had a mass removed from her brain, so I knew there would be a long road ahead of her.  I knew several of her different systems would have been in question, so I assumed cognitively there was going to be a delay.  I thought this is probably going to be someone who needs a lot of work, and school work would not be the likely first thing on her list of preferences.  But even on the very first day, she just came in all smiles, ready to try.  She couldn’t do any of the work we set in front of her on her own, but she didn’t complain, she didn’t ask to leave, and she had no hint of attitude at all.  She’s in 6th grade – that’s when the attitude starts coming!  But here is this girl, just ready to give it her best shot.

I look at her and can’t help but notice she’s almost the same age I was when I had my first major surgery.  But it’s so different .  She shows me just how easy I got off as a kid.  I was uncomfortable.  I was medicated.  I was forced to do a lot of difficult things that I didn’t want to do.  But I always knew what was going on.  I always had at least control over my body.  To have your basic functioning skills taken away from you, and relearn them from scratch?  She has to learn how to make herself sit up.  She has to learn how to hold a pencil.  It puts a lot of things in perspective.  To be completely in someone else’s control and be pleasant about it?  That says a lot about her personality and her strength.

It’s strange – this classroom, especially, is interesting.  We only see a snapshot, but we see so much in that snapshot.

There was one child who was only here two-and-a-half weeks.  He’s a high school student who is blind and was here for a spinal surgery.  He was in the halo, had a giant brace all around him – must have been wildly uncomfortable, but he was trying to keep up with his school work.  But we’d never had a blind child here, so we didn’t know… He needed all of these programs installed on the computer so the computer would read everything to him on the screen.  Any other kid – a 17 year old boy who is from out of state and in a lot of physical pain—would be really frustrated to walk into this classroom and have to explain to very computer un-savvy people how this program would work on the computer so he could do a simple math test.  But he spent three hours on that first day talking us through it, waiting for our IT guy to come down so he could install it.  We started to do install the temporary options because we wanted to hurry through it so he could get to his work, but he said, “No, no.  Let me install it on all of your computers the right way.  Let me figure it out for all of them so that the next child who comes in who’s blind and needs this – it’s already set up for him.”

He wasn’t aggravated about it.  He wasn’t rude about it.  He didn’t seem disgruntled.  He said, “You know what, I’ve got the time.  Let me do this for everybody.  Let me make a list of things that might be helpful if another blind child comes in.”  He was happy about it every time.  This kid was in pain, but he was set on making it so the next child would have an easier time.

These kids blow me away.

I have spent so much time in hospitals, this feels like a second home.  Over the holidays, I saw all kinds of friends and family I hadn’t seen in several months or even a year.  It gave me the perfect platform to stand and just scream at the top of my lungs, “This is it.  I’m done.”  This is where I’m going to work.  I don’t have any ambitions to move to anything higher.  If financially I’m able to stay in this job long term, I feel like I’m going to be really satisfied for a very long time.  I feel so lucky.  I leave work and I walk in my front door crazy smiling and super excited.  That’s pretty rare to go home on Friday and still be that happy at the end of the week.