School Nurse Takes Crutches from Injured Student

By: Gerri L. Elder

Amber Elalem is a 13-year-old student who enjoys sports and physical activity. She injured her knee on February 3 while kicking a ball and complained about the pain the next day. Her mother, Patricia Elalem, who happens to be a registered nurse, picked Amber up from school on February 4 and spoke with Denise McKee, the licensed practical nurse at the school, about taking Amber to Tampa General Hospital for treatment.

At the hospital, Amber was diagnosed with a strained ligament and her knee was placed in a brace to immobilize it. She was given crutches and instructed not to put weight on the injured knee.

On February 6, Amber returned to school on the crutches. McKee noticed that she was using crutches and called Mrs. Elalem to ask for a doctor's note indicating that the crutches were medically necessary. Mrs. Elalem called the hospital to have Amber's doctor fax a note to the school. The problem was, the school's fax machine was broken and McKee never received the doctor's note about Amber's crutches.

Since she did not receive the required note from the doctor, McKee took Amber's crutches away from her, citing a school policy intended to prevent other students from being injured. Amber was forced to walk without the crutches, putting weight on her injured knee. She did not have access to an elevator, so she had to walk up and down stairs to make it to her classes. She finally called her mother to pick her up at 1:30 p.m. when she could no longer endure the pain.

When Amber got home, her mother removed the immobilizer from her knee and found that the kneecap was on the side of her leg. Amber then attended physical therapy for a few days, but it was unsuccessful.

As a result of not having the crutches, Amber dislocated her kneecap and orthopedic surgery was required to repair her knee injury. She had a reaction to the pain medication that was prescribed to her and spent three days in the hospital, then developed signs of an ulcer. She is currently recovering from the surgery and carries a doctor's note for her crutches with her at all times.

It is not yet known what permanent damage may have been done by the nurse's removal of her crutches. Amber's personal injury lawyer says that if she suffers permanent damage from the injury, he is prepared to pursue a lawsuit claiming that McKee violated Amber's civil rights by taking her crutches away from her at school.

Meanwhile, Amber's mother has filed a notice of intent to sue the Hillsborough County School District. The notice is a requirement for legal action against a government entity. The school district has 180 days to respond to Elalem's filing.

The school district's office of professional standards is investigating a complaint that Amber's mother filed about McKee. The Tampa Tribune reported that the school district claims that the school and Mrs. Elalem tell two different versions of events. While the school district does not have an official policy requiring a doctor's note or prescription for crutches, the district's supervisor of school health has sent an e-mail to principals saying that student's must produce a doctor's note to use crutches or a wheelchair on school property.

A school district spokeswoman has said that no school employee has been instructed to take crutches or wheelchairs away from injured students in the absence of a prescription or doctor's note. The thing is, before now they weren't instructed not to either, and McKee apparently believed that she was following the instructions of the school district's supervisor of school health when she took Amber's crutches away from her.

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