HeadLice.Org Hot Spots


Checking for lice at camp for children who have had cancer.

Judd Slivka
Special for The Republic
Jul. 20, 2005 12:00 AM

It begins normally, like any other first day of camp. Check the kids in, make sure the paperwork is in order, give the kids' hair a look over for lice or other beasties that ruin the camp experience.

Once they get up to camp, they'll run and jump in a lake, go hiking and have legendary Jell-O fights.

But this no ordinary camp, and these are no ordinary kids.

The 50 kids from the Valley and beyond who headed to Camp Sunrise outside Payson on Saturday morning come from different economic and social backgrounds. But they all have one thing in common.

They've all had cancer.

"We alter their lives because of the disease," said Steve Abella, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa. "Once they're off chemo and are cancer survivors, the goal is to give them the same camp experience you or I might have had as a child."

Abella is Camp Sunrise's camp doctor this year, following 15 years of working cancer camps as a doctor in Michigan.

He's one of a score of medical professionals volunteering their time at the camp so that the kids - about 10 percent of whom are in active treatment - can have a fun summer experience.

Other doctors and nurses from Banner Desert will be attending the camp. The nurses that did the check-ins and the head lice checks before heading up to Payson were volunteers from the Mayo Clinic.

And though the camp is about kid play, it also serves a more serious purpose: It's a real life examining room.

"You see whole parts of kids you don't see in clinics or the hospital," Abella said. "They open up to you in different ways. You see things you wouldn't normally see, since you're spending all the time with them."

The camp is in its 27th year, all of them underwritten by the American Cancer Society. It attracts cancer survivors from the entire state, as well as New Mexico and Nevada. The bulk of attendees to the two-week camp, though, are from Arizona. And they're a lot like Beth Hutchens of Mesa.

Beth is 11 and a little bit shy around adults. But around her friends she's a laughing, playful girl. She was diagnosed with leukemia when she was a little over 2 years old. She went through two years of chemotherapy and has been in remission for about six years. She has gone to cancer camps for a long time. Last year, she went to Sunrise and loved the hiking and the drama classes.

Her parents loved it for another reason.

"Their self-esteem, which they need, just gets better," said Beth's mother, Sharon. "When they go through what they go through in treatment, they get very dependent. You tend to do more for them than you really should because they're sick.

"There was a real difference when she came back (from her first camp several years ago). Before she went, she wouldn't brush her own hair. When she got back, she wouldn't let us do it for her."

Camp Sunrise is one of the few camps that don't put a limit on how often a camper can return. Often, camps will tell families that after so many years of remission, a space needs to open up. Not Sunrise.

And that has its own benefit.

Older campers take care of the younger campers. They become role models. Alex Hanson-Bain, 14, of Queen Creek, has been coming to Camp Sunrise for seven years. Still a few years too young to be a counselor-in-training, Hanson-Bain goes to see his old friends and, perhaps unwittingly, to be a role model.

"I like to get to know the younger kids and look after them," Hanson-Bain said.

And then there's another lesson, one learned by Cathy Feldt of Surprise.

Her son, Eric, is 10 and has been out of treatment for leukemia for about 18 months. Last year was his first year at Camp Sunrise.

"When kids are going through this, they're so sick, they're concentrating on getting better and they don't realize that there are other kids like them. Now that he's out, he can see other kids who went through this."

Copyright © 2005, All rights reserved.

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