Camp helps youngest patients of stroke

August 4, 2011 7:04:25 PM PDT
A unique summer camp is changing the lives of young people in the Bay Area.

The youngsters are victims of a condition more often associated with older adults: Stroke. Overcoming the symptoms takes determination and commitment.

Life has been an uphill climb for seven-year-old Bennett Vernick. The left side of Vernick's body was severely weakened by a stroke he suffered while still inside his mother's womb.

At a camp being held at California's Pacific Medical, Vernick is pushing himself over yet another hurdle.

Therapist Joanie Hooper says the program challenges young patients to rebuild weakened muscles and damaged neural pathways.

"It's a tough thing, and we're kind of trying to walk a tight rope of pushing them without pushing them too far," Hooper said. The children, aged three to eight, attend sessions for six hours a day, three days a week. After warming up, therapists add in a challenge: They place a plastic cast on a child's good arm or leg, which forces them to use the weaker side.

"It's not automatic for them to use that side of their body," Hooper said. "They've learned through their development to compensate with their strong side."

Strokes are still considered to be rare, but do occur within 1 out of every 1200 births. Many aren't diagnosed until months after they've occured, and group therapy programs are limited. The therapy Bennett Verdick attends was started by his mother, Audrey.

"I created the program because my son needed it," Audrey Vernick said. "Last year, we had our first year and there were six kids on the program."

Therapists say they've already been able to measure improvements in the children who have returned for a second year.

"They couldn't do this before, and now they can do this," Hooper said. "They can still do it when they come back or they can do better."

Vernick named the program "Camp Bennett" in her son's honor and believes the intensive therapy will ultimately pay dividends for all the kids.

"When Bennett says to me 'I can't,' I say 'Is it I can't or I don't want to?'" Vernick said. "Because he can do anything."

Tuition for Camp Bennett is $4,500, but Vernick said most of this year's fees were covered by donations. The space was supplied by California Pacific Medical Center free of charge.

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