Local teacher’s passion for teaching helps in her recovery after brain tumor

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Kindergarten teachers play a crucial role in introducing children to the world of learning. Local kindergarten teacher Robin Nichols loves taking on that important task. In fact, it served as her motivation during her recent rehabilitation journey at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation-The Woodlands Medical Center.  

While teaching one day last fall, Nichols began experiencing symptoms of a seizure. She was rushed to a local hospital, where doctors discovered a 4 centimeter tumor on the left side of her brain.

“This was the first time I had ever had a seizure,” Nichols said. “However, about a year earlier I experienced symptoms of what could have been a stroke, according to my doctor, with half of my face going numb and intense headaches.”

Nichols often reflects on that year, which began with the devastation from Hurricane Harvey. Her school was severely damaged, and she and many other teachers lost everything they had prepared for the upcoming school year. “As a school teacher and a mom, the beginning of the school year can be very stressful and you can sometimes brush things like headaches off as just part of the stress,” Nichols said. “I didn’t pay as close attention to the headaches as I should have.” For Nichols, the headaches were manageable with over the counter medication.

The benign tumor doctors found was meningioma, a tumor that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull. Once it was removed and Nichols was discharged from the hospital, she began the Challenge Program at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation-The Woodlands Medical Center to help regain movement she lost as a result of the surgery.

The tumor affected her balance and she had to walk with a walker for approximately two weeks. In addition, it affected her language and speech, and increased her sensitivity to commotion and large crowds.

At TIRR, Nichols participated in occupational, physical and speech therapy sessions to help regain what she lost and return to teaching, driving and being able to multi-task.

“When Robin first began therapy, she expressed experiencing light and noise sensitivity, which made it difficult for her to perform tasks such as grocery shopping, and concentrating on her phone and computer,” said Nichols’ occupational therapist, Trang Nguyen. “It was important for our team to work to address the challenges Robin was facing by focusing on progressive and graded exposure to increasing environmental stimuli with the end goal of full re-engagement in her daily functional tasks.”

One of the unique features about the Challenge Program is that it allows therapists to provide treatment outside of the facility by incorporating community re-integration outings. “We had a therapy session where we went grocery shopping at a local grocery store and came back to the clinic to cook in our instrumental activities of daily living kitchen,” Nguyen added. “This may seem like a ‘regular’ thing for most people, but for our patients who have incurred any type of brain injury, there is just so much to contend with, and Robin did so great adapting to those challenges!”

In addition, Nichols’ team of therapists developed creative ways to aid in her rehabilitation journey. For example, Amanda Wirt, Nichols’ occupational therapist, brought her young children to simulate a classroom setting.

Bringing my children to simulate a classroom setting was very important to helping Robin reach her goal of returning to work,” Wirt said. “Seeing Robin talk about teaching, she had a glow about her and such a big smile on her face. We could tell how important teaching and returning teaching was to her.”

Wirt and her children provided Nichols’ with a low-pressure environment to use her teaching skills. “Robin was able to practice a lesson plan in a low-stimulating, low-pressure environment, which greatly helped with her confidence,” Wirt said. “At first, Robin was unsure about participating as she was nervous, so I think returning to teaching in this type of simulated situation helped calm some of her fears.”

“When I first started at TIRR, the thought of even looking at a lesson plan would make me cry,” Nichols said. “Amanda bringing her children to help me was a big step in my journey.”

Nichols looks forward to returning to the classroom and making a lasting impact on her students.

“I love what I do and I feel that I’m really good at what I do, but I couldn’t see myself going back to that before I started at TIRR, and now I can see myself going back and I can’t wait,” Nichols said. “I don’t believe that I would have made this progress being anywhere else other than TIRR.”

By Jade Waddy

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