Imus Ranch Experience Gives Teen New Perspective on Cancer
Lisa Capps wasn't at all sure that she wanted to send her teenage daughter across the country -- even to spend a week at a special New Mexico ranch owned by radio icon Don Imus.
After all, 14-year-old Brittany Bailey had just experienced a very tough year: the diagnosis of a rare cancer, surgery, a couple of extended hospitalizations in Chapel Hill, separation from home, school and friends, and six months of chemo and all of the accompanying side effects. To top it off, she had never flown before.
But Brittany's counselor at FirstHealth's Grief Resource and Counseling Center thought a week at the Imus Ranch would be good for her, and Capps was assured that a member of the Imus Ranch staff would accompany her on the trip.
Most of all, Brittany wanted to go. So off she went -- for seven memorable days of horseback riding, meeting other kids with similar experiences and even chores on a working Western ranch. She made some friends for life, almost won a rodeo, came to love a special horse, and got to know Imus, his wife and son, not to mention some cool cowboys.
It was an incredible experience, and she's already talking about going back next year.
"It was really awesome to be with other kids who had cancer and had treatments," Brittany says.
The Imus Ranch is a working cattle ranch in the New Mexico hills near Ribera, about 50 miles northeast of Santa Fe. According to Web site information, its sole purpose is to provide the "great American cowboy experience" to children suffering from cancer or serious blood disorders and those who have lost siblings to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.)
Brittany's path there began before Christmas 2004.
She hadn't been feeling well for a while -- an aggravating pain in her side and acid reflux. But then she began to retain water, first in her face and throat and then in the rest of her body, serious swelling that alarmed her mother and especially people who hadn't seen her in a while.
An abdominal ultrasound and a CT scan revealed a mass on her adrenal glands, the glands that produce steroid hormones, adrenaline and nonadrenaline. There are two adrenal glands, one located on top of each kidney, and they help control heart rate, blood pressure and other important body functions.
The mass in Brittany's body was malignant, so she went to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill for surgery and a regimen of IV and oral chemotherapy that lasted from the end of January to the first of June 2005.
According to her mother, adrenal gland cancer is so rare that Brittany's physicians were holding consultations about her case with specialists all over the country. "With it being so rare, they haven't done very many studies on it," Capps says. "It really was a fast thing to come on. Hers was second or third stage."
Brittany lost her hair and missed a lot of school, but carried on, thanks to the support of family, friends and a special teacher, Peggy Early, and her daughter, Catherine. "Mrs. Early took me under her wing," Brittany says. "She's just awesome."
Her cancer now in remission, Brittany continues to make regular trips to Chapel Hill -- once every three months to see an oncologist, because of the cancer, and once every three months to see an endocrinologist, because of the glandular involvement.
Between those trips, she has CT and MRI scans at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, where her mother has been a certified nursing assistant and secretary in the Coronary Care Unit for more than eight years and where co-workers helped her through the family ordeal by donating Paid Time Off hours and holding fundraisers.
"They were wonderful to us," Capps says. "I was out of work from December until the second week in July, but I drew a paycheck every two weeks just like everyone else."
Just turned 15, as of Sept. 4, Brittany is a ninth-grader at Sand-Hoke Early College, a five-year program conducted as a partnership between Hoke County Schools and Sandhills Community College. She was one of 60 students chosen for the program the year she started it, and she will have a two-year college associate degree when she graduates.
A typical teenager in every way except for her medical history, Brittany likes to talk on her cell phone, shop, hang out with friends, swim and pamper her three dogs (two boxers and a shepherd-mix puppy). She is also a Carolina Tar Heels fan, and her favorite subjects in school are math and science.
The Way West
Pat Bartley, a counselor at the FirstHealth Grief Resource and Counseling Center, had been seeing Brittany for several months when it occurred to her that Brittany might benefit from being around other children who had experienced cancer. Another counselor, Keith McDaniel, is a Don Imus fan and knew about the Imus Ranch.
"I have been listening to 'Imus in the Morning' for years and have heard him talk at great length about the ranch," McDaniel says. "I have always thought the ranch was a great idea for working with and helping kids with cancer. Deep down, it's obvious that Imus has a real tender spot for these kids and that all their needs are taken care of while they are there. I am just delighted that it worked out for Brittany, and I hope that we might have others who will take advantage of this opportunity in the future."
At McDaniel's urging, Bartley started looking into the possibility of getting Brittany into the Imus program. Some investigation led her to Barbara McGoey, a registered nurse with the Joseph M. Sanzari Children's Hospital in Hackensack, N.J., and nurse coordinator for the Imus Ranch.
"Barbara is wonderful," Bartley says. "Once she found out the need, she responded immediately. They are just great in responding to the needs of kids."
Despite her own work and the work of McGoey and the Imus Ranch staff in arranging the trip, Bartley calls Brittany and her mom "the heroes of this story."
"Brittany, because she wanted to go, and Lisa, because she let her go," Bartley says. "It's an invaluable experience to be with kids who have had cancer."
The Imus Experience
Any lingering doubts that Capps had about sending her only child across the country and far from home -- and there were many -- were eased when she learned that a child life specialist from the Imus staff would meet Brittany at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and accompany her on the trip to New Mexico. She was also relieved to learn that the ranch's staff included on-site medical professionals whose duties would include a mid-week report on Brittany's status.
"I felt pretty good," Capps says. "I did a lot of praying."
Brittany, on the other hand, was eager to go and found the ranch more than met her expectations. The July 22-30 experience was no cushy vacation, though. The Imus Ranch is a working operation, and all of the kids were expected to pull their weight.
"We had to be in the kitchen for breakfast at 6 a.m.," Brittany says. "Then we fed the animals, and then we had 10 minutes to clean up our room."
The rest of the day involved either riding lessons or chores. If you rode in the morning one day, you did chores that afternoon. The next day's schedule was just the reverse -- chores and then riding -- and so on throughout the week. Each day ended with dinner and an evening of fun stuff followed by lights-out at 9:30.
Brittany got especially close to her horse, a brown gelding called P.J., that she learned was the favorite horse of Imus' 8-year-old son, Wyatt.
"He didn't like the other horses," Brittany says about P.J. "He was kind of stubborn. I didn't want to leave him. I was surprised I got so close to him."
She also enjoyed preparing for the rodeo, a steer-roping race scheduled to be the big end-of-camp event. She heard that the cowboys had a side bet going on about who would win and that a couple of them had picked her. Although she came close, she didn't win, but she was pleased for the girl who did.
"The girl who won it, I was glad she won it," Brittany says. "I think she deserved it."
Toward the end of the week, Brittany joined fellow camper Alyssa Turcsak of Iowa as guests on a morning broadcast of the Imus show. She found her famous host "intimidating at first" and "very open-minded," but with a definite soft side.
"He told us, 'Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something,'" she says.
That pretty much sums up the reason for the Imus Ranch, an experience that Brittany says has helped her to appreciate things more because of the things that she shared with the young people she met there. She especially recalls an evening when all of the young campers "got on the subject of telling our stories."
"Attitudes change when you have cancer," she says.
"She said it felt good to be with kids who had experienced the same things she had," her mother says. "She keeps in touch with those girls."
The services of the FirstHealth Grief Resource and Counseling Center, which is operated by FirstHealth Hospice and Palliative Care, are available free of charge to anyone in the FirstHealth community. The phone number is 715-6000.
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