Meningitis victim fills void by volunteering at school

Wallowa County ESD speech pathologist Birgit Suess (left) covers her lips as she gives a listening exercise to Judy Fletcher. Photo by Rocky Wilson

Some people are born to teach.

Judy Fletcher of Enterprise is one of those people. At age five she would line up her dolls and animals and practice teaching to them. When she graduated from Eastern Oregon College in 1970 with a teaching degree she wasted no time getting into the profession that had always captivated her imagination. She found it every bit as good as she had anticipated, maybe better.

She taught some 10 years in the primary grades in the Portland area before moving back to Enterprise where she had graduated high school in 1966. For 20 years she lived her dream of teaching kindergarten in Enterprise, always accepting the challenge to get the most out of herself and her students.

Husband Gary Fletcher, a reporter for the Observer in La Grande, was always aware of his wife's passion and supportive.

But things changed dramatically for Judy and Gary Fletcher on the 16th of December, 2001,when what started out as an ear infection evolved into streptoneumococcil meningitis. A common bacteria that rarely gets into the brain, Judy's bout with meningitis did just that and left her with an illness that was life-threatening, leaving her in a coma for two weeks. She came out of the coma slowly, in stages, fighting a loss of hearing and temporary paralysis.

As soon as her consciousness returned, the true battle by her standards was returning to the classroom.

After 1 1/2 years of fighting that battle, she has finally come to the realization that the answer is no. She cannot return as a full time teacher. Some brain damage, short term memory loss and the loss of her hearing will keep her away from the teaching position she both held and cherished at Enterprise for 20 years.

At the April meeting of the Enterprise school board, at her request, Judy Fletcher was placed on the disability retirement list at the school. She will receive insurance benefits and some payroll benefits, but will never return to her true role as a classroom teacher.

The decision did not come easily.

After returning to Enterprise from Boise and weathering a major relapse of complications caused by the meningitis, Fletcher suffered a relapse which sent her back to Boise where surgeons drilled holes in her skull to relieve fluid pressure that had built up on the brain. Learning to hear some sounds again through the presence of a cochlear implant in her right ear, Judy Fletcher finally returned to school as a volunteer.

The 55-year-old teacher said this week in retrospect, "My whole past year I was thinking I could go back and teach. I love teaching kids. I always thought I could teach until I was 65."

But in her heart she knew.

In spite of a herculean effort to overcome her handicaps Judy Fletcher realized that as a teacher she would have required the full time assistance of another adult to write down the words that kids would be saying in a noisy classroom. She can now communicate one-on-one with family and friends, but peripheral conversations or conversations where she cannot read the lips of another person are, at best, trying.

Good news came in June when Fletcher was approved by doctors to again drive an automobile. She used the added mobility once school started in the fall to return to Enterprise grade school where she has become a valued volunteer.

Though she cannot teach a class, she can still work one-on-one with students, tutoring them in reading or math. The transition has been gradual, but now she has the stamina to volunteer her services up to two hours each day, five days a week. She works with individual students in three different classrooms; grades 1, a 1 & 2 split, and a 2 & 3 split.

She is not the classroom teacher she used to be, but she can still go to school and find lots of kids, many of whom she taught in kindergarten, to smile with in the hallways.

In her own way Judy Fletcher is still a teacher.

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