In 2010, at the age of 2 ½, Dereon North’s life was forever changed when she awoke from a nap unable to move. Dereon was eventually diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological condition that left her paralyzed from the neck down.
Fast forward 12 years and Dereon is now an 8th grader at East Middle School in Akron. She plays the flute, participates in student council, performed as an Oompa Loompa in East’s spring production of Willy Wonka, and helps manage the softball team. Next year, she has plans to join East High School’s marching band.
If there was ever a poster child for not letting your disabilities stop you from living life to the fullest, Dereon is it. And she achieves it all with the support of her parents and siblings (Diandra, Darmetrus and Destina), friends, and the aid of Akron Children’s school health licensed practical nurse Lynette Walker and Akron Public Schools’ educational assistant Kathy Klein, who spend each school day by her side.
Akron Children’s School-Based Health Services provides care and health education in schools throughout northeast Ohio – collaborating with school districts to address the health care needs of their students to make a positive impact on school performance and manage individual student health needs in the school setting.
Since Feb. 2022, Lynette has been Dereon’s caregiver at school. She gets to school at 7 a.m. so she can ride a special bus that picks Dereon up at 7:30 a.m. to bring her to school and rides it back to Dereon’s home at 3 p.m.
“Each morning we meet up with Kathy and get all of Dereon’s adaptive learning equipment ready for the day,” says Lynette. “Dereon has a full day of academic classes as well as band and a family and consumer sciences class where just last week she helped whip up a batch of brownies.”
Although they’ve only been working together for 4 months, Lynette and Dereon have an easy rapport. With duties that range from troubleshooting her instrument in band class to feeding Dereon lunch to suctioning or changing her tracheostomy tube, Lynette does it all with a smile.
“I think it helps that I also have a 14-year-old daughter so I can relate to her,” says Lynette, who sometimes must jog to keep up with Dereon when she decides to speed away in her electric powered wheelchair that she controls with a tilt of her head (and can go up to 6 mph).
Lynette keeps a Post-it note taped to the back of her hospital ID badge that lists the start and end times for each school period, so she knows where Dereon needs to be and when. Sometimes they leave class a little early to avoid crowds in the halls, but other times Dereon adeptly weaves in and out of other kids who all seem to know her by name and stop to chat.
“Dereon takes her studies seriously,” says Lynette. “She’s a good student who is self-motivated.”
Dereon writes using a pencil fitted to an adaptive mouthguard and can type on her computer using an IntegraMouse Plus, which is a mouth operated joystick that Dereon controls through a combination of lip or head movement that allows the mouse pointer to move and activate clicks.
That same concept is how Dereon can play an instrument in her school’s band.
“My sister, Diandra, is in East’s marching band,” says Dereon. “I like going to games and watching her so I figured it would be fun to join the band.”
Dereon plays the flute through a special program called Jamboxx, a hands-free, breathe-powered instrument that resembles a harmonica that pairs to an iPad mounted on her chair.
“It can be programmed to play any instrument,” says Stephen Fassnacht, her band teacher. “On one of the songs Dereon is preparing for our middle school concert she switches between drums and flute for a few beats (with Lynette’s help).”
Lynette’s duties don’t just stop inside the school walls. When Dereon decided she wanted to help manage the middle school softball team, Lynette arranged for the bus to take her and Dereon to games. Since Dereon can feel everything from the neck up, she easily gets cold, so Lynette makes sure Dereon’s head and ears are covered to help regulate her temperature. She also adjusts Dereon’s chair when needed and gives her an added push when she gets stuck in the mud.
Softball coach Ashley Forte says she loves the energy Dereon brings to the team.
“She smiles and laughs. She’s always excited to be here,” Ashley says. “She hates the cold and rain, but she shows up anyway. If she decides to do this again next year, she’ll be able to boss her sister around who plays softball for the high school.”
Another decision Dereon will need to make next year is whether she and Lynette want to continue their student-nurse relationship.
“We get to mutually decide if we want to stick together and do this all over again next year,” says Lynette. “She has a great personality and I enjoy my time with her.”
In the meantime, Dereon has more pressing decisions to make – like what color dress she should wear to the 8th grade formal she helped plan as a member of student council.
“I’m thinking red, to go along with the dance’s ‘red carpet’ theme,” says Dereon.