Staff Q&A: Gina Ditto

Gina Ditto is a special education teacher at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital's Marie Wattis School. The Marie Wattis School is part of the Child Life department, and is a public school in the San Francisco Unified School District.

Ditto has a master's degree in education with an emphasis in child life from Mills College. She also holds a special education credential. She has been a teacher at the Marie Wattis School for more than four years.

There are six teachers on staff at the Marie Wattis School at UCSF. Which patients do you work with?

I work with any school-age students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, who are identified as special education students and have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) at school already. I work with a variety of special education patients, ranging from very high functioning to severe impairments.

What does your typical day look like?

There isn't a typical day! Every morning the teachers go through the census of patients. If any of the school-age patients are special education students and have an IEP, they are referred to me or our other special education teacher on staff. While some patients are here just a day or two, others, like those receiving blood and marrow transplant treatment, can be here on and off for months.

Special education students generally don't come to the classroom, where we do group instruction. I often work with them in their room. If it's a new student, I'll bring by a book or a word search activity as part of my introduction. If they're not feeling well, I'll leave some materials and follow up later in the day to see if they're willing.

If the patient is feeling OK, I get them started on some work. We have all the curriculum books from the school district and we have work packets for each grade level.

Part of my day is also spent contacting the patient's school and finding out their IEP goals so I can implement them during their hospitalization. And there's plenty of paperwork and chart notes to do, too.

Is it hard to motivate kids to do schoolwork while they're in the hospital?

If they aren't feeling well, we aren't pushing schoolwork. But it's surprising how receptive kids are, as long as they feel OK. One of the main things we have going for us is that school is normal for kids and families. It's their everyday routine, and we are able to continue that.

We also have some programs that motivate them. We have a journaling program where kids get to read about previous patients' experiences in the hospital and contribute their own thoughts. The nonprofit organization Bay Kids works with our patients to teach filmmaking skills. Some of our patients make movies about their experience in the hospital.

You also work with the School Re-Entry Program. By educating teachers, administrators and student-peers about a returning patient's hospital stay, you are able to pave the way for a smooth transition from hospital to school. Can you tell me about one of those transitions?

Recently there was a young boy who became paralyzed as a result of a BB gun accident. Child Life Specialist Camilla Sutter and I visited the boy's classroom before he returned to school to talk with his classmates.

We talked about what they thought had happened to the boy, and we were able to clear up some misinformation. We also talked about what it means to be paralyzed and described what the boy experienced at UCSF. The kids had really good questions.

Then we did some role-play and talked them through how they could support their classmate — since they now had a better understanding of what it means to be paralyzed and using crutches — if they witnessed anyone teasing him. We also talked about supportive language they could use with the boy to make him feel welcomed back to school.

I had the fortune of seeing the boy return to class on the first day, and the other students were using the words we had given them. It was powerful to see it all come together.

What do you like most about your job?

I see new kids and new families every day. I really like that each day is different.

Some children have chronic conditions, and they may be back and forth to the hospital for years. Those are the families I get to know really well. When kids come back for appointments, they often stop by. It is very rewarding to see those kids look so healthy — just like regular kids.

What is challenging about your job?

Certainly the emotional aspects. Kids and their families are going through so much when they're here, and you really feel it. But as hard as it is, the rewards and payoffs of bringing a little bit of normalcy to their lives are much bigger than the negatives.

August 2011

Written by freelance writer Julie Beer.

Photos by Eric Desch Photography.