CDH’s ‘Mr. Gross Mouth’ Gives Students The Facts On Smoking

NORTHAMPTON — Sixth graders at Westhampton Elementary School met ‘Mr. Gross Mouth’ recently.

They held the murky Jar of Tar, containing simulated residue from a smoker’s lung. And they learned that the same chemical mixture used as nail polish remover is just one of the 40 cancer-causing additives in cigarettes. Judith Bennett, a respiratory therapist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, did whatever she could to leave a lasting impression with the students.

Bennett hopes that her combination of facts, real-world examples, and eye-opening teaching aids helped prevent at least one of the 800 students she has taught so far this school year from taking up smoking. Bennett is on the elementary school circuit, visiting classrooms, auditoriums and cafeterias throughout Hampshire and lower Franklin Counties. She is spreading the word to a vulnerable age group – research suggests children ages 10 to 12 are the most at risk of taking up smoking – that smoking is unsafe and, over time, can cause severe health problems and possibly death.

Bennett should know.

She sees the results of smoking firsthand as she takes care of Cooley Dickinson Hospital patients who suffer from smoking-related illnesses such as emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lynn Sherry, Westhampton Elementary School nurse, says it’s Bennett’s on-the-job experience that sparks students’ attention.

“You can throw a lot of facts at kids, but bringing in a guest speaker who can tell the students firsthand what it is like in an emergency room or in a hospital is very influential,” she said. “Judy explains what she sees as a respiratory therapist. This hits home, we hope.”

Bennett has visited Westhampton Elementary twice, the first time in 2003, when Cooley Dickinson was piloting the smoking prevention presentation. This school year, Sherry says, she was thrilled to take advantage of the program again. “It is extremely valuable to know that Cooley Dickinson, as our community hospital, is supporting health education in the schools,” she said.

Research suggests children ages 10 to 12 are most at risk for taking up smoking.

To date, Bennett said, the smoking-prevention program has been well-received. “In September, we distributed 26 letters to the 26 area elementary schools. Everyone has replied, and every school is scheduled through March of 2005.”

In addition to the 800 students who have heard the smoking prevention presentation, 47 teachers, 13 school nurses and seven principals have observed.

Word-of-mouth, too, helps fuel the popularity of this program. School nurse Barbara Midura from the William E. Norris School in Southampton praised the program during what they called tight budget times for their school. Leverett Elementary School fifth grade teacher Joan Godsey has taught for 20 years. She praised the presentation, noting that it was very age appropriate and came at the right time in the Leverett students’ education.