The Great Escape: Going To School In A Hospital Bed

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This is what going to school in a hospital is like for Julia. For other patients, it may be math after chemotherapy or English while doing dialysis.

Julia Villasenor was there in her hospital bed wearing a purple vest, a jacket that vibrated and made her whole body shake.

She had a tube in her mouth, hissing from a machine. She was getting life saving breathing treatments.

Next to Julia’s bedside sat Heather Siminski in a yellow gown and blue gloves. Julia is in isolation at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Siminski is her schoolteacher.

Julia’s medical world is colliding with academia – and she loves it.

If she has to be in the hospital, math and reading lessons are a great escape – the perfect way to make her feel like things aren’t all that different.

“I like when she brings the iPad,” says Julia, who is 16 and lives in Hammond, Ind. “I like reading and math.”

After reading the story, “A New Boy,” and acing the quiz, Julia moved on to math.

“I’m going to read this to you. You answer the best you can,” Siminski says to Julia, who is still doing her breathing treatments. “Don’t feel like you have to talk to me.”

Julia nods. 

“Which of these two units would we use to measure a really, really big long boat?” Siminski asks. “A meter or a liter?”

The question is on that iPad Julia loves. She takes her finger and carefully presses the answer “meter.”

As Siminski praises her, Julia pulls the breathing tube from her mouth, just for a second, to smile.


“Take two more big breaths,” the respiratory therapist standing next to Julia’s bed says. “Two more. Great job.”

This is what going to school in a hospital is like for Julia. For other patients, it may be math after chemotherapy or English while doing dialysis.

Riley has a team of teachers assigned to different floors. Homework is sent from their schools, completed with the help of Riley teachers and sent back.

The goal: Don’t miss out on academics, just because you’re in the hospital.

It’s a way for kids to stay connected, too. After all, if they’re working on a math sheet sent from their school, all their friends must be doing the same math sheet.

As Julia and Siminski work together, Julia often gets distracted by her first love – Hollywood.

She loves actor Christian Bale and, for a while, was on a “Batman” movie kick. Then, there was the Nicole Kidman phase.

On this day, Julia wants to know if Siminski has seen the movie “Matilda” with Danny DeVito. 

Siminski smiles and laughs. It’s clear she truly loves Julia.

This relationship, without a doubt, is part teacher, part friend.


Siminski always knew she wanted to work at Riley. After graduating from Ball State University with a degree in elementary education, with a concentration in kindergarten, she found a way.

She came to Riley eight years ago as a child life specialist helping with play times on the cancer and GI units. As Riley’s school program grew, and positions opened, she took a job as teacher.

Seven kids are on her unit now. She spends about an hour or more a day with each patient.

Siminski is also adamant about going out to her patients’ schools and educating staff and other kids about their conditions.

“Just because they don’t look sick doesn’t mean this isn’t serious and they don’t need accommodations,” Siminski says. “These kids need a lot.”

And Siminski is giving it to them.

“She’s got beautiful handwriting,” she says, as Julia writes an answer to that quiz she aced in reading. “And when she shows her work in math, it is so organized.”

Julia beams. It’s a tiny moment in a hospital room that makes everything just a little bit better – a little more normal.

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

   Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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