Teacher’s compassion spurs support from student
By SHELLY WILKISON
“It isn’t often that you meet people with such a golden heart.”
That’s how one Liberty Hill High School student describes chemistry teacher and Student Council advisor Bonnie Dortch.
“Her ability to connect with students and understand their needs is truly inspiring,” said junior Jordan Marsh.
Marsh opened the door to Dortch’s classroom during her conference period recently and found her teacher on the cell phone, struggling to convince someone on the other end that she needed her prescribed medication and she needed it to be covered by insurance. The phone conversation grew increasingly tense, and Dortch became tearful as the frustration and sense of urgency grew.
Dortch, a 12-year teaching veteran of LHHS, is being treated for the rare autoimmune disease Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP). It is a neurological disorder characterized by progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the arms and legs. Only eight in 100,000 people have been diagnosed with CIDP — a more acute form of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
She was first diagnosed with the disease in 2008, but it went into remission in 2010. In 2013, it reappeared more virulent than ever. “It feels like walking on pins and needles, and I lose function of my hands and feet,” Dortch said, adding that the disease attacks the sensory nerves and impairs walking, periferal vision and spacial orientation. “It’s painful to put my feet on the floor.
“It feels like my whole body is ganging up against me,” she said. “And to anyone watching, it looks like I’m a clumsy fool. People probably think I’m drunk all the time, I stumble and fall because I can’t feel my feet.”
Dortch, who teaches Pre-AP Chemistry and regular Chemistry, recalled the day that her students had to warn her to remove her hand from a hot plate during an experiment. She said she couldn’t feel that the plate was hot.
When the symptoms increase at work, she said she has to be especially careful walking and cannot stand a lot while teaching. With a classroom on the second floor, she had to get a key to the elevator.
“I try to be as still as I can because I can’t feel my feet. I trip over backpacks (in the classroom), and will even stumble on a flat surface,” she said.
“Have you ever seen the opening graphics on the ‘House’ TV show with all the neurons firing?” she asked. “Well, I can feel that. It’s like all the nerves short circuiting.”
Marsh, who is an active member of the Student Council, said her teacher doesn’t complain and speculated that most are not even aware she is suffering from the disease. Had she not walked in unannounced while she was dealing with the insurance company, the pharmacy and her doctor’s office, Marsh might not have known how serious things were.
“I decided I wanted to help and creating a GoFundMe page seemed like the fastest way to bring some relief,” Marsh said. “I wanted to make sure this was from me because Mrs. Dortch would never ask for help on her own.”
“I’m on support medications all the time,” Dortch said. But the treatments that do the most good, that provide the longest-lasting relief are given intravenously.
“I space them out as far as I can because they are so expensive,” Dortch said.
After insurance pays a portion of the treatment, Dortch must pay from $1,000 to $1,400 for one infusion. She said she tries to wait about nine weeks before scheduling the next treatment, and added that one treatment requires the plasma donation of 70 people.
Her last treatment was in January.
A new insurance plan put in place by the school district this fiscal year has tripled the cost of medications and treatment.
To help pay medical bills, Dortch also does private tutoring. And in the past, she worked as an adjunct professor for Austin Community College. However, the classes she taught were not offered again.
Dortch has two children in college, and is married, but her husband has no health insurance. While she pays to insure her children, she said she could not afford the premium to add her husband to the policy.
Dortch said she will likely be on medications for the illness the rest of her life.
“Basically, I’m living at the whim of my immune system,” she said.
Without treatments, Dortch said the pain would be so severe that she would not be able to work in any job.
Marsh, who plans to study biomedical science or animal science in college to become a veterinarian, said Dortch is well-loved among high school students and her co-workers, but the impact she has had on her life will never be forgotten.
“I was really having some problems last year, and she showed compassion and really cared about me,” Marsh said. “She was my mom for the day. She cried with me and I felt so much better. She is my mom at school. That’s the kind of teacher she is — she really cares about her students. She is always ready to help and really connects with them.”
Marsh said when she was struggling to understand the concepts taught in Pre-AP Chemistry, Dortch made herself available every day at 7:30 a.m.
“I really enjoyed having her as a teacher,” Marsh said. “This is not cool, she should be happy.”
Hearing her student’s kind words brought tears as Dortch silently tried to dry her eyes.
“It makes me happy that I actually really reached someone at that level,” Dortch said.
When she first developed the symptoms in 2008, it took doctors more than three months to reach a diagnosis. At first, some thought she was suffering from Muscular Sclerosis.
Dortch said that year she got a Flu Mist vaccine, which has been linked to the onset of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) — a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system and damages nerve cells. She said although closely related, CIDP is different from GBS in that CIDP impacts the peripheral nerves.
The GoFundMe page was created last Sunday, and at press time had collected more than $300 in donations. Make a donation at www.gofundme.com/l8p9gk.