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Health center team gives gift of walking

For Wanda Marshall, the term “Whole Child” conjures images of a boy in red rubber boots. If you visit her School-Based Health Center at Place Bridge Academy, she’ll tell you a story about an immigrant Thai boy who desperately needed medical help, but had never been able to access it in his native country.

“He walks completely like this,” she said as she stood pigeon-toed. “He was completely toed in. The only reason I knew they were feet was because they each had five toes on them.” She goes on to explain a career-defining medical intervention that she led.

The boy in red boots was eight years old when he met Marshall, and he could barely manage to walk because of a birth defect that left his feet mangled. “His mother still used a stroller to help him get around. Here in this country, we’d send the kid right away to orthopedics and get his feet fixed,” she said.

The boy she’s talking about is a student at Place Bridge Academy, and a patient of hers at the School-Based Health Center. His family had recently moved from Thailand where they’d been living in a refugee camp for years. The mother of the boy didn’t speak any English, but luckily she had access to an interpreter through the school, someone who spoke Karen, her first and only language.

The school’s interpreter tipped off the school nurse and Denver Health staff at the health center. Marshall and her team were then able to make an initial assessment and refer the boy to Children’s Hospital, where he received the orthopedic care he needed.

Correcting an issue that serious takes time, so Marshall didn’t see the boy for quite a while, but she kept track of him through letters from his orthopedic doctors. A couple years later, after numerous tests and surgeries, she saw him again. This time he was in a wheelchair but only because he’d recently had his last surgery and was still recovering.

She noticed he was now wearing regular tennis shoes. She had to ask, “Can I see you stand up?” What she saw is the reason she goes to work every day. “He stood up, smiled at me and his feet were perfectly straight,” said Marshall. To her, it was hard to even fathom the impact it would have on his life, but she knew she’d been part of something special.

Those are the kinds of stories you can find at School-Based Health Centers across all Denver Public Schools. The centers are places where DPS staff and Denver Health providers, like Marshall, work closely together to provide comprehensive health care to DPS students. Each center varies a little in its services, but at Place Bridge Academy, they offer dental, mental health services, primary care and a small pharmacy – all of which can be accessed within a day’s notice. If a student has health insurance, they’ll take it, but if they don’t, they’ll help the student get on Medicaid or another affordable health insurance program.

While some students need intensive medical support, like the boy from Thailand, Marshall’s team focuses heavily on preventive care so that kids stay healthy and in school. They borrow a little time from physical education classes to give kids their annual physicals and vaccinations. Marshall says the strategy works well because kids are already in their gym clothes and their parents don’t need to drive them to the doctor for a separate appointment. There’s no co-pay either since state law exempts School-Based Health Centers from collecting money; something all parents love.

Marshall and team also screen for risk factors so that they can provide education and resources early. Starting in middle school, they ask students about smoking, drinking and sexual activity. They assess mental health to screen for depression and other mental illnesses. They can help prevent obesity and malnutrition by simply measuring a student’s height and weight, then making a plan for the kids who need it.

These centers are one part of DPS’ effort to support Whole Child education by looking at the needs of our students beyond the classroom, which ultimately leads to academic success. School-Based Health Centers are relatively new in Denver, but Marshall has been in the business for almost 20 years and she knows the impact. “Mental health, social workers, we’re tapping into every single aspect of a student’s health and that’s going to keep the kids in school, keep them healthy and make them successful,” said Marshall. 

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