July 25, 2011
Camp Bennett gives child stroke survivors a boost
Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, July 25, 2011
At Camp Bennett, Alexis Peppers is strong - and strong-willed.
She's 8 years old, and one of the older kids. That means she often helps out with the younger ones, reading to them and playing with them, and helping them climb unsteadily to their feet when they've been sitting on the floor.
And when it's her turn on the obstacle course, she bats away the helping hands of a physical therapist. She wants to do it on her own.
"Alexis gets to be a role model here," said Audrey Vernick, Camp Bennett's founder and director, as she watched Alexis play with another little girl in a recreation room at California Pacific Medical Center. "She gets to be a superstar."
Alexis, along with the other kids going to Camp Bennett this summer, is a stroke survivor. The camp is a three-week intensive therapy program for kids ages 3 to 8, who all have serious disabilities from the damage done to their brain. This year's camp ends Friday.
Camp Bennett, in its second year in the Bay Area, is believed to be the only program of its kind in California, and one of only a handful in the United States. It costs $4,500 to go, although all but one of the participants had most of the fee covered by donations, said Vernick.
Strokes occur when blood-flow to part of the brain is interrupted by a clot or tear in an artery. The damage done to that brain can result in weakness on one side of the body, trouble with speech and vision, and cognitive problems. Like many other kids at Camp Bennett, Alexis, who suffered a stroke two years ago, is weak on the left side of her body and has little strength or coordination in her left hand and arm. Strokes rare in children
Strokes are fairly rare in children, hitting at about a rate of 2 to 6 cases per 1,000 children in the United States. Many pediatric strokes happen in the womb, and babies aren't diagnosed until months after birth.
That was the case for Bennett - Vernick's 7-year-old son and the camp's namesake. He seemed healthy at birth, but at around 5 months old he wasn't meeting developmental milestones and he started having seizures. A brain scan revealed that Bennett had suffered a stroke early in the second trimester of pregnancy. Since then, he's suffered severe weakness on the left side of his body.
Bennett has received all kinds of physical, occupational and speech therapy. Several years ago he started a relatively new type of treatment called constraint-induced movement therapy - his "good" arm is restrained in a cast, forcing the brain to become more aware of the "bad" arm. Camp Bennett uses constraint therapy by keeping kids in temporary casts through most of their six-hour day at camp.
There's little research into constraint therapy. In fact, research into all types of post-stroke rehabilitation for children is slim. But stroke experts and parents alike say there's no doubt that a camp setting is good for the kids.
"It provides good, strong social as well as therapeutic benefits," said Dr. Christine Fox, a neurologist with the Pediatric Stroke and Cerebral Vascular Disease Center at UCSF who has had two patients attend the camp. "I don't know if there's a specific rehabilitation that's better than the others. But when they're in a camp setting and have friends with them to make it fun, that's a great thing for kids."
Vernick started the camp after sending Bennett to a similar one in New Jersey two years in a row. The East Coast camp was great, but simply too far away for the family. Children came from all over California for this year's camp - Alexis and her mother drove from Sacramento.
The first year the camp was held at a Burlingame physical therapy center. This year, California Pacific Medical Center offered free space at its Davies Campus. The camp is open every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In the mornings, the kids do mostly indoor physical therapy, and in the afternoons they do less traditional rehab, such as aquatic therapy or dance lessons, or a visit from a therapeutic dog.
But every day starts with the campers going through an obstacle course that changes daily. One day last week, that meant scooting themselves along on a rolling platform, then climbing a ladder and crossing a metal bridge-like structure several feet off the ground. Kids gain new perspective
Each part of the course was designed to work on different areas of rehab - building strength and balance, correcting posture, encouraging use of both arms and legs.
As Alexis took her first steps across the metal bridge, she shooed away the therapists hovering nearby. She wanted to do this by herself, and she beamed when she reached the end of the bridge and looked out over the room, from 4 feet off the floor.
Occupational therapist Joanie Hooper grinned as she watched.
"A lot of these kids don't ever get to climb very high," Hooper said. "Just reaching the top gives them a new perspective."