Patricia Elalem said she couldn't believe her daughter's kneecap dislocated after what at first seemed like a minor injury.
Even more troubling to Elalem is what might have caused the injury to worsen. Elalem says a nurse at Walker Middle School in Odessa took away 13-year-old Amber's crutches last month, forcing the girl to walk in pain.
Patricia Elalem said the nurse told her she had to remove the crutches because of a school policy prohibiting them without a doctor's note and that the intent is to prevent other students from being injured.
"I was floored," Elalem said. "You don't take medically prescribed treatment away from a child."
Elalem has filed a notice of intent to sue the Hillsborough County School District. The notice is required by law for legal action against a government entity and gives the school district 180 days to respond.
Her attorney, Tom Parnell, said he did not know what damages he would seek because Amber is still recovering from surgery to repair her knee. "I'm hoping at her age she's able to recover," he said.
If Amber walking without the crutches has caused long-term damage, Parnell said, he will pursue a claim that the school nurse violated the girl's civil rights.
School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the district's office of professional standards is investigating a complaint Elalem filed about the licensed practical nurse, Denise McKee.
"The school and the parent have two different stories," Cobbe said, noting she could not elaborate because of the pending litigation.
There is no district policy requiring a doctor's note for crutches, but the district's supervisor of school health has issued an e-mail to principals stating students must produce a doctor's note to use crutches or a wheelchair, Cobbe said.
"We ask for a doctor's prescription or a doctor's note, but there's nothing that says take away the crutches," Cobbe said.
Amber is an avid athlete who participates in basketball, track and soccer, Parnell said. She had orthopedic surgery March 13 to repair her knee after walking without the crutches and now carries a doctor's note at all times about using the crutches, he said.
The girl initially hurt her knee while kicking a ball Feb. 3, her mother said. The injury seemed minor until the next day, when Amber complained to McKee about the pain. Elalem said when she picked Amber up from school, she spoke to McKee about taking Amber to Tampa General Hospital, where Elalem works as a registered nurse.
Amber was diagnosed with a strained ligament; the teenager's knee was placed in a brace called an immobilizer, and she received crutches, with instructions not to put weight on the knee, Elalem said.
On Feb. 6, when Amber returned to school, McKee phoned Patricia Elalem asking for a doctor's note for the crutches, Elalem said. Elalem said she didn't know the note was required but phoned the hospital to have a doctor fax a note to the school.
The school fax machine wasn't working, so McKee never received the note, Parnell said.
That morning, McKee took away Amber's crutches, Parnell said.
"She didn't give her access to the elevator. So Amber was forced to walk up and down the stairs until about 1:30 p.m., when she couldn't take the pain anymore," he said.
Elalem said her daughter called her, saying, "I can't walk. Come and get me."
On the way home, Amber said, "You know, the nurse took my crutches this morning and made me walk all day," Elalem recalled.
"I got home, took her immobilizer off, and her kneecap was on the side of her leg," Elalem said.
Amber tried physical therapy for a few days but needed knee surgery, her mother said. She had a reaction to the pain medication and was admitted to the hospital for three days. She now is taking medication and watching her diet because she has developed symptoms of an ulcer, her mother said.
"It's been a nightmare. It hasn't stopped," she said.
Reporter Valerie Kalfrin can be reached at (813) 259-7800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.