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Riley School Program helps Avon junior battling cancer keep up with classwork

Educators with the Riley School Program have been helping Vivian Eagle as she juggles Advanced Placement and college-level courses, all while she battles cancer.

INDIANAPOLIS — Thousands of students across Indiana are now back in classrooms, but for kids getting treatment at Riley Children's Hospital, back to school looks a little different. 

The Riley School Program works with children K-12 to help them with schoolwork and make sure they can keep up with their classmates when they're ready to head back to school in person. 

The educators with the Riley School Program have been helping Avon High School junior Vivian Eagle as she juggles Advanced Placement and college-level courses, all while battling cancer.

Inside her hospital room at Riley with her mom by her side, 16-year-old Vivian said missing out on that first day of school while her friends headed back was tough.

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"My friends would snap me and they'd all be at school and stuff and I was like, 'Man, this stinks.' So I ended up getting up early just to see, to talk to everybody before they went to school. It is really tough," Vivian said. "I really, really want to be at school right now."  

Credit: WTHR

For months, Vivian has been battling osteosarcoma, a bone cancer in her left knee. The big tumor in her bone started out as a small ache, she said.

"During volleyball practice it was OK, it was a little bit of pain. But I was an athlete, I was used to aches and bruises and everything. And then after practice, it was like this dull ache that just never went away," Vivian said. 

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Suddenly, the pain wasn't the problem anymore.

"I like jumped for the first time and this is my jump leg," she said. "And I couldn't get off the ground. So I was like, 'OK, something's wrong.'"

Credit: WTHR

Ever since, she's been a regular, coming in and out of Riley for chemo and treatments. She's been making big progress on fighting the cancer but the treatments she receives, she said, have at times made it hard to concentrate and keep up with the rest of her class.

"And with the chemo for this, it's like really strong, high doses. So the memory thing, I will have days where I just don't remember anything, so there are days when in class, they'll be learning new material or going over lessons and I'll have to wait a couple of days, so I'll get behind." 

Treatments often leave her physically sick, feeling drained but unwilling to drop the honors- and college-level courses picked out. Vivian said she's not letting cancer keep her away from her coursework and her future goals. 

"I'm always going to feel bad, crappy, it's just not good. So I've got to actually push myself, gotta be like, 'I've got to get school done.' I know I don't feel good, but I've got to get stuff done," she said. 

Ready to make sure she doesn't miss an assignment is Madison Stewart and all the staff at Riley School Program. Program manager Kristin Wikel said they work with around 1,000 K-12 students, mostly in inpatient treatment.

"A lot of times, families really appreciate our services because we're able to take that off their plate and have them give 100% of their attention to their children's medical needs," Wikel said. 

Wikel said between the 13 educators and one instructional assistant, they're able to keep students caught up with the rest of their class from inside the hospital, ready to return to school once they wrap up treatment.  

It's a vital program, Wikel said, that's been helping children learn for nearly a century.

"I think probably one of the biggest benefits of working here is getting to work with our families," Wikel said. "These families are going through so much and if we can just alleviate one stress off their plate, then we've done our job."

After a massive surgery on her knee and now an end in sight to her treatments at Riley, Vivian takes extra time studying while here for her treatments so she won't miss a beat when she gets back to school at Avon later this year.

But saying goodbye hasn't been easy. 

"I think there will be parts that I don't ever want to remember. Like there are some things that's just like, traumatizing almost," she said. "But I think some of it, I don't want to forget. Like some of the kids have helped me so much, they helped me realize what's important in life. I just, I don't want to forget all of it because there were a lot of people that helped me here."

Thanks to her doctors and her teachers helping her all these months, Vivian is getting ready for her next steps. She's counting down to the end of treatments and with it, a return to school, this time cancer-free. 

"It's just like this little club that nobody wanted to be a part of. But then, once you're a part of it, you don't want to leave it," she said. 

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