Friday, February 22, 2008

Donna Leads a Home Visit to a Blind Toddler

In addition to meeting with key leaders and visiting schools, Donna McNear really wanted me to see blind children in their homes. Donna is the main reason I'm involved with this project: she's an itinerant teacher of the blind in rural Minnesota. But, she's a teacher with a national reputation and a fierce dedication to improving and reforming the system for educating blind children. She has also made Micronesia her professional mission focus. For years she's been coming to these islands, helping health professionals and teachers better serve the blind and visually impaired children. She's even been to Pingelap with Mary Kidd from Guam, taking the ship Micro Glory for 24 hours, sleeping on a straw mat on one of the upper decks. I'm dedicated, but not that dedicated!
House in the jungle

Donna feels that seeing the child in his or her home environment is essential for development and assessment. She's been visiting a handful of kids on Pohnpei, and wanted to take me out to visit one of the children. She decided, after consulting with the special ed team in Kolonia (the main city on Pohnpei), that we'd go out and visit Aleckson, a four-year old blind boy who lives in Kitti, about 45 minutes counter-clockwise around the island. Aleckson's house is about 200 yards off the main road in a village. To get there, you need to cross a log bridge over a small deep creek. Apparently, the bridge fell down a couple of months ago when two of the staff from Kolonia were coming to visit and they got somewhat hurt by falling ten feet to the creekbed. But, the bridge had been replaced and looked pretty sturdy to us.
Teenage girl sitting on floor, holding a blind baby

We found Aleckson being held by a teenage girl, who was very shy, surrounded by a lot of kids. Donna sat down with Carlina Henry, our guide and translator (and one of the key special education staffers in Pohnpei state) and started talking to this girl, Aleckson's sister. After a couple of minutes, Donna starts to wonder where Aleckson's mom is. She asks and is startled by the news: his mother died giving birth to twins. Aleckson's main caregiver is now his sister, who is only in seventh grade.

Carlina explains that there's a lot of family support for Aleckson and his siblings. His aunt (his mother's sister) is taking care of the twins in her home. Aleckson's sister (I never could catch her name, she was very shy) is still in school. The community helps out.

Aleckson is running a fever and not feeling well. That doesn't stop Donna from offering to take him onto her lap and work with him. Aleckson is one of the kids whose eyes didn't develop, conditions called Anophthalmia (no eye) and Microphthalmia (small eye). You can't tell which condition without doing a medical exam, which isn't the point of our visit. Donna wants to find out how Aleckson is developing. His mother had been very attentive to Donna's advice, and Donna had seen big improvements on her last visit to Aleckson. But, the mother's loss certainly has been a setback for his cause. Donna asks about his language development, and finds out that he had a fair number of single words. She suggests to the sister that he be encouraged to use two word phrases, such as "want water," as a good next step.

Donna tries to get Aleckson to stand up at a low table, but he doesn't want to. The sister explains that he's just sick, and that normally he likes to get around. She points out a railing in the yard they had built for Aleckson, and said that he really likes walking along the railing.

Railing set up in a yard

After 20 minutes, Donna has imparted what advice she can, and makes some mental notes of things to talk about with the special educators in Kolonia. I can tell she's still pretty shaken about learning about Aleckson's mom's passing, although while she learned the news while holding Aleckson she only paused for about thirty seconds before moving forward with assessment and advice. It's a stark reminder that health care is still rudimentary in the islands, and that mortality is still pretty high. We soon learn that one of the other blind children Donna wanted to visit has died, and that this is not uncommon. It gives me a little more insight on why Donna is so dedicated to this region and these kids.

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