December 3, 2013

Doctors, nurses, tests ... and teacher?

Maine’s only in-hospital educator helps sick kids stay connected to their studies and provides a break from the medical anxieties.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

Abby Snyder pokes her head into Carter Blanche’s room at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. “You ready for class?” she asks the 6-year-old boy, who has cystic fibrosis and is back for another week-long treatment. “We have a spelling test today!”

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At top, teacher Abby Snyder works with patient Carter Blanche, 6, of Augusta, during a recent study session in her office at Maine Medical Center’s pediatric ward in Portland. Above, Snyder helps Carter with his writing skills.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below

“Yep!” he says with a big grin, looking over at his dad, Josh.

Snyder is the in-house teacher at the pediatric center, a hospital within a hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Although on-site teachers are common at large pediatric hospitals in big cities, Snyder is the only one in Maine.

“Parents are completely surprised to find a teacher here,” she said.

If a child is too sick to do any schoolwork, Snyder can advocate for the child to ensure that school officials understand the situation. For children who are well enough, she works with their teachers and keeps them up to speed so they don’t end up facing piles of homework and missed tests when they return to the classroom.

For some children, technology can help bridge the gap between school and a hospital bed. Snyder can get a student a laptop or arrange a video link to the classroom using Skype.

Snyder works with about a dozen children a day, on average, and can be called in to work with school-age children in other parts of Maine Medical Center, such as teen mothers on bed rest in the prenatal unit.

For advanced math and science, Snyder calls in Anthony King, a former classroom teacher who volunteers at the hospital. A Classics major, he has helped students with Advanced Placement Latin homework, too, she said.


Snyder is the fourth person to hold the job since the part-time, contract position was created. She said she usually works full-time during the school year and about 15 hours a week in the summer.

Her classroom is tucked into a corner, its walls lined with books and packed with everything from flashcards for youngsters to a model of the universe. Origami cranes dangle from the edge of a whiteboard, and an enormous hand-drawn green dinosaur competes with handwritten thank-yous to Snyder over a desk.

Every day, Snyder checks in with school-age children on the floor. She works with parents, contacts school officials and teachers to explain why a child is out of school, and arranges for appropriate schoolwork.

When a child is hospitalized, getting in touch with school officials can be the last thing on parents’ minds, she said.

Snyder said patients like Carter, who have chronic or long-term illnesses that put them in the hospital regularly, become particularly special to her.

“I get some continuity,” said Snyder, who keeps special folders for those patients.

Carter’s father, Josh Blanche, said Snyder has made a huge difference to his son. And he’s grateful to know that the program is there for his 3-year-old daughter, Emma, who also has cystic fibrosis and already needs regular hospitalizations that last at least three weeks at a time.

For Carter, having “his teacher” there makes his stays in the hospital more bearable.

“Without (the classroom program), I just can’t imagine it. It would make for a very long time in the hospital,” said his father. “When (Carter) comes here, he’s looking for a couple of faces, and Abby’s is one of them.”


The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital is filled with light and homey touches. Cartoons are painted on windows, and a picture of the former first lady fist-bumping a patient hangs on a wall.

As Snyder walks through the unit, she steps aside for a young girl wearing a hospital gown who zips down the corridor on a pink Big Wheel tricycle. Other ride-on toys are parked by a sunny atrium with couches and easy chairs.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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John Ewing/staff photographer... November 22, 2013…Abby Snyder is the only hospital based teacher in the state, working out of the pediatric ward at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Snyder works with a patient, Carter Blanche, 6, of Augusta, during a recent session.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/staff photographer... November 22, 2013…Abby Snyder is the only hospital based teacher in the state, working out of the pediatric ward at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Snyder works with one of her patients, Carter Blanche, 6, of Augusta, in her office at MMC.

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