When 18-year-old Amber Pflughoeft walks across the stage at her graduation from West Bend West High School, she’ll be defying more than a few odds. Amber has survived stage 4 osteosarcoma – bone cancer – and is graduating on time with her class despite missing hundreds of days of school over the past eight years.
Her staunch supporters in the audience will include her mom, Tiffany, her 9-year-old brother and Mike Trocchio, her teacher at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Amber was first admitted to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin as a fifth grader. She immediately began treatment at the MACC Fund Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.
“I was really, really sick,” said Amber, who was 10 at the time.
Meeting kids’ educational needs
Despite her serious illness, Amber started taking advantage of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s School Program, which serves kids with inpatient stays, meeting their educational needs and bringing school to their bedside. The comprehensive program is supported through Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s Family Services Department and administered by the Wauwatosa School District. Four full-time teachers and one instructional aide saw more than 1,500 students during the 2016-2017 school year.
Mike has been with the School Program for 12 years, and has been Amber’s teacher since she was an eighth grader. “From the beginning, it was clear that Amber was a really bright girl and a hard worker. Although she was living with cancer, she always had a positive attitude and was willing to work even if she wasn’t feeling 100 percent,” he said.
Amber was treated for cancer throughout her middle school years before her disease went into brief remission. During that time, Mike helped her keep up with her studies.
High school at the hospital
In ninth grade, Amber’s cancer returned. This time she was in the hospital for week-long stints of therapy, then back at school for two weeks. “But I often missed the first few days back at school because I was still sick from the chemo,” she said. “I was getting behind in my schoolwork.”
That’s when her relationship with Mike really stepped up. “Amber and I covered a great deal of her high school subject matter together,” Mike said.
Partnering with Amber’s school and coordinating with her teachers, Mike helped Amber through her core high school classes, including geometry, algebra, anatomy, three years of high school English, U.S. history and even advanced placement government and politics.
The two weren’t just checking the boxes, though. “Mike has a real passion for teaching and learning — he especially loves history and his passion for that inspired me and gave me an extra energy boost,” said Amber. “He even tied my subjects together — when we were studying poetry for English class, he would connect it to the history we were studying.”
Amber’s mom, Tiffany, is grateful for the program. “It’s been really nice how Amber has gotten individualized teaching through the School Program. Mike did all the coordinating with Amber’s school so I didn’t have to do that,” she said. “It really takes the pressure off.”
“As teachers in the School Program, we let the parents focus on their child while we focus on learning and schoolwork,” said Mike.
Amber’s cancer has been tough to beat, and her therapy continues. But she — and her teacher — never gave up.
“When my arm was too tired to write, Mike would write for me. When my throat was sore, he would read out loud for me,” she said. “Mike is a great teacher, but he’s also a great friend. He truly cares about my health and my well-being.”
Amber will graduate with her peers through an alternative school program called GED Option 2, or GEDO, which helps students who are behind on their credits by providing alternative coursework and testing to help them meet graduation requirements. During her senior year, she has attended school three hours a day, but when was at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin for weekly treatments, Mike still helped with her final coursework, including health, personal development and civics.
Walking across the stage to receive her diploma is something Amber didn’t know if she would ever do. “There were so many times that I didn’t know if I was going to make it, medically, past freshman year,” she said. “Now, being on track academically and being able to plan for the future means a lot to me.”
Amber’s goal is to go to college and get into the medical research field. “I want to help people who have side effects from chemotherapy later in life,” she said.
Mike has no doubt Amber will achieve her goals. “This is a kid who, when we first met her, it was hard to know if she’d even be here today. She’s a fighter, and an amazing young woman.”
How will it feel for Mike to see Amber walk across that stage in June? “That’s something I don’t get to do very often,” he said. “It’s going to be very meaningful to me.”
As for Amber, she’s thrilled to be graduating with the same kids who were her classmates in elementary and middle school. She hasn’t seen as much of them during high school because of her treatment. But she has plans to celebrate after the graduation ceremony with a group of friends. “We’re going out for pizza,” she said.
Amber’s mom struggled to find words to express how she feels about Amber’s graduation. “I’m so proud of her and how she’s kept up with her schoolwork,” she said. “We just didn’t know if she was going to make it this far.”
Your support makes care like this possible
Services like those provided by our School Program are critical to helping kids heal in body, mind and spirit. The School Program is just one example of our many patient amenities and services that are made possible by donor support. Help us help other kids like Amber by donating today.
– Katie Lott, writer, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin