Youngest burn survivors go to camp

Children treated at UC Irvine Medical Center find support from others with similar injuries

April 19, 2010
Summer camp for burn survivors

Each year, up to a dozen children treated at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center are sent to a summer camp for burn survivors. The benefits for these burn survivors are incalculable, say experts who care for the kids.

"It's a great experience for the kids," says Dr. Marianne Cinat, the burn center's medical director. "They get to know other children and develop real bonds based on shared experiences."

"This changes their lives," says Cinat, adding that the campers often become lifelong friends who support each other through the special challenges they face with such common adolescent experiences as dating.

Eight-year-old Cyrus Bonczkowski will be among the UC Irvine campers this summer. In May 2009, he found a lighter in some bushes and inadvertently set himself aflame. Although his father quickly called 911 and paramedics rushed him to UC Irvine Medical Center, Cyrus suffered life-threatening third-degree burns over more than half his body. He underwent numerous operations to cut away dead skin, control infections and have synthetic tissue grafted over wounds to induce healing.

Cyrus was discharged in August 2009 but continues to receive care at UC Irvine. Although he faces years of rehabilitation, plastic surgery, counseling and more operations, Cinat says his prognosis for a normal future is good.

"They saved his life," says Cyrus' mother, Jamie Newton.

One-third of the 600 or so patients treated annually at UC Irvine Regional Burn Center are under 18. Injuries range from accidental scalds to more serious burns—like Cyrus'—and often require skin grafts, long hospital stays and constant vigilance against infection. Each summer, dozens more children are burned when they step into beachside fire pits that appear to be extinguished.

Participation in the UC Irvine summer camps is consistent with the burn center's philosophy of treating not only the survivors' physical scars but also the emotional ones. The UC Irvine team includes a psychologist as well as doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and a social worker. This year, the center will send nine children to several camps in California and Colorado selected by their parents.

"These children have a chance to be around others their age who have walked in their shoes," says Carolee Van Strien, a UC Irvine burn center social worker who assists patients and their families during treatment. "Their peers at school don't know what it's like to have a burn injury, but at camp all the children have burn injuries. They can openly talk about their skin grafts, surgeries, rehabilitation and frustration over healing-related itchiness—as well as how their lives have changed."

"Every child we've sent to camp has come back with more confidence and better acceptance of their injuries and the challenges they face," Van Strien says.

The campers have local firefighters to thank for the opportunity. The Orange County Fire Authority's mountain-bike racing team has, for the last five years, raised money to pay their way. In September, the team will compete at Hurkey Creek in Idyllwild, and on April 24, firefighters will hold their fifth annual benefit for pediatric burn survivors (7 p.m. at the Auld Dubliner in Tustin).

"Although it's exciting to race, we do it in the spirit of sending kids to summer camp," says firefighter Michael Partee of Station 37 in Tustin. "We think this is one of the best things we can do to give back."

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