Ailing employees get assistance from colleagues, students
URBANA – When Linda Darr slipped on a patch of ice and seriously injured her back in February, her recovery could have been one of the worst experiences of her life.
Instead, she said, "I am just so overwhelmed with how well I've been taken care of."
Though Darr praises her doctors, it's not her medical care that has the King Elementary School reading teacher raving.
It's the Urbana school district administration, faculty, staff and even students.
Each group has helped Darr as part of the district's Return to Work program, which began this school year.
The service was started to help seriously injured and ill employees better make the transition from having to stay home to working at full capacity.
"Most of our employees are dedicated. They hate to be out of their classrooms. They hate to be out of their job," said Carol Baker, the district's business director and a co-leader of the program. By making accommodations specific to individual issues, "we kind of let them know that we're watching out for them."
The service started when district members attended a free program through Carle Clinic Association called Workplace Injury Network. More information about the program is available at http://occmed.carle.com.
Run by Barb Wleklinski, the program has worked with more than 100 employers – mostly from Champaign and Vermilion counties – to create clear-cut expectations and communication between everyone involved in an employee's recovery.
Since the Urbana school district finished the program this past summer and started its own program, it has worked with about 10 employees to make accommodations and a plan for getting them back to work efficiently and safely.
In Darr's case, her back injury – which happened on the job while she was walking to attend a school meeting – required several alterations to her routine.
Her doctor said she couldn't push or pull, couldn't lift things, couldn't walk far, couldn't bend – difficult directions for someone who works with children.
During the month Darr was recovering at home, school employees including Carmelita Thomas, the district's director of human resources, and Baker worked with Darr to set up ways for the teacher to come back to work without unduly taxing her body.
Substitute Shirley Moreland worked with Darr by phone every day to make sure Darr's expertise was still getting into the classroom even when she physically couldn't get there.
"The first thing we try to tell them is, 'Pace yourselves,'" Thomas said. "'We're glad you're back but, hey, take it easy.'"
At Darr's school, everyone pitched in to help set her pace, and she can't express her gratitude enough.
"I had people who were willing to go to the Xerox machine for me," she said. "The maintenance person had the door open for me."
Her colleague Renee Renfro even set up a schedule for older kids to walk younger kids to and from Darr's class.
Students also express their wishes for their teacher's recovery beyond helping with doors or attendance. Instead of giving Darr a hug, they squeeze her hand.
Thomas said getting everyone involved in an employee's recovery helps the district save money by allowing its employees to work at – but not beyond – their capacities.
"I think that was the piece that we were missing," Thomas said about the district's program prior to this year.
Wleklinski said the Return to Work program also benefits doctors in prescribing recovery processes. "Part of the reason (the Carle program) began, was because (the doctors) were frustrated," Wleklinski said. "They were being asked to make decisions in a vacuum."
Now, doctors can find out from the school or other employer exactly what types of activities the employee does normally and then suggest modifications around those activities, updating their suggestions as the patient recovers.
Thomas said that kind of individual care not only helps employees recover, it also helps boost morale.
Darr seconds that in her comments about Urbana schools.
"They have gone that extra mile beyond that call of duty to help me get better and to help me return to work," she said. "E for extraordinary, that's how I look at everyone who's involved in my recovery."