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Doctor in the classroom: Student's show-and-tell takes learning to a new level

In the lively halls of Marshville Elementary, where laughter and the shuffle of footsteps fill the air, you'll find a spirited fifth-grader named Cole Russell. Cole values life's little joys, such as talking with his friends, walking to his classes and playing soccer. However, four years ago, none of these things were possible for him due to a rare condition he was born with called gastroschisis. His medical journey turned into a crash course in resilience—a lesson in courage that resonated with everyone in his school community, where his mother, Emily Russell, also teaches.

During a family vacation, Cole faced a life-threatening complication—twisted intestines. It led to multiple surgeries and a grueling 93-day hospital stay. The situation escalated with a stroke, adding to the hurdles he had to overcome. Dr. Emily Nazarian, a pediatric intensive care doctor at Hembey Children's Hospital, played a crucial role in Cole's survival and recovery. She exceeded typical medical responsibilities, becoming a source of hope and support for him and his family. Their bond is so strong that when Cole asked her to share her insights into how the human body works with his class, she said yes immediately.

"I wanted my classmates to meet the person who saved my life," said Cole.  

On Nov. 28, Dr. Nazarian and Cole turned the classroom into an interactive space where his classmates could learn about the human body in a relatable and personal way.

Real-life lessons, real impact

The lesson proved to be an eye-opening moment for the students. With Cole by her side, Dr. Nazarian incorporated real-life scenarios and images into the lesson, establishing a tangible connection to the material. The students actively participated, asking thoughtful questions, and eagerly absorbed knowledge with newfound enthusiasm. Their teacher, Alison Rushing, stressed the value of integrating authentic situations into the classroom. 

"Learning from real experiences helps students understand complex concepts with greater depth and empathy," said Rushing. "The bond between Cole and Dr. Nazarian showcases the human side of medicine and leaves a lasting impression."

Much of the conversation was about how the different systems work together and the procedures that can happen when they are not working. Dr. Nazarian discussed the impact of a stroke on various body systems like the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous and muscular, explaining how it led to Cole losing movement and speech. 

Dr. Nazarian drew parallels between his recovery and the process of enhancing running or baseball skills. It prompted students to reflect on what actions would lead to improvement. Their conclusion, "run more and train," mirrored Cole's recovery. She had to guide him in using the side of his body that required improvement.

She also talked about when Cole's body needed some extra help to breathe properly, so doctors did a tracheotomy, a kind of procedure to make sure he could get enough air. Many of the students were familiar with it and why it helps. 

"I was impressed with the amount of engagement from the students. The teachers have been able to tie the subject to things that are important to them," said Dr. Nazarian. "If students want to pursue medicine, I'd tell them they must work hard and study. I'd advise them what I tell my children. 'I want you to do well in school, not because I want you to have fancy things. I don't care what you do in your life; I want you to have choices.'"

Students Caleb Hall and Martha Ocampos gained new insights during the presentation, including that the liver serves as the cleansing organ in the gastrointestinal system. Cole's strength and bravery inspired Caleb. 

"Cole's story proves people can handle anything; you just have to stay strong," said Caleb. "He's tough."

Martha, whose brother had a hospital stay, discovered that feeding tubes are sometimes necessary but not the first choice for doctors. The liquid nutrition in feeding tubes isn't absorbed as effectively as solids. 

A community united in support

Cole's journey was not a solitary one. The Marshville Elementary community rallied around him and his family, extending love and support. It became a pillar of strength as many colleagues and friends visited him.

"The hospital staff was amazing as well. We became so close to the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists and all the people there with him throughout this journey," said Russell. "They kept us going." 

When Cole couldn't attend school, his class participated in the Monkey in My Chair program. They received a big stuffed monkey and a smaller one. The large one sat in Cole's chair, and using its backpack, students collected his assignments and sent messages. Meanwhile, the smaller monkey stayed with him, reminding everyone that even though he was away, Cole was still a valued and missed part of the class.

"His classmates were very concerned about him and wanted updates. They are a close-knit group of kids," said Russell. "Many of them know his story. In my opinion, it has made learning about the human body even more engaging for them. They've seen his X-rays, videos of his swallow tests and pictures of his ostomy and what comes out of it."

From struggle to the soccer field

Today, Cole's story is a testimony to the unyielding spirit of the human will. Despite having to re-learn essential functions, he now graces the soccer field of a local team. As Cole continues to thrive, his story echoes a legacy of courage, compassion and the power of real-life lessons.

"When we see him playing soccer now, sometimes his father and I sit on the sideline, look at each other, and cry when he scores a big goal or does something well because there was a time he couldn't walk," said Russell. 

Cole's soccer victories have become not just athletic achievements but symbols of personal triumph. All that's left from Cole's journey are the memories and the scar on his stomach – you know, the kind of mark that says, "I faced it, and I'm still here." 

"When I was in the hospital, I would always tell myself, especially on those days I didn't want to do it anymore, never give up," said Cole. "That's what I would tell people facing struggles - never give up."