December 19, 2014

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At ‘burn camp,’ kids don’t have to worry about people staring

AKRON — Every one of the 28 kids has a story.

Maybe it was a house fire. Or a car accident. Or a gasoline-fueled bonfire. Or a powerful jolt of electricity. Or a lawn mower that caught fire.

Of all the stories at the annual “burn camp” at Portage Lakes, Sam Pratt’s is one that is well-known.

On Jan. 23, 2006, Sam, who wasn’t feeling well enough to go to Hudson Middle School that day, went to work instead with his mother, Julie, a teacher at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson near Akron. He sat in on an 11th-grade chemistry class she was teaching.

The afternoon’s lesson included a demonstration of how various chemical salts burn. Students clustered around the table as salts and ethanol were mixed in evaporating dishes and lighted.

But as the bottle of ethanol tipped toward one of the burning dishes, vapor ignited with a whoosh, creating what some students later described as a fireball. Six students, Sam and his mother were injured.

Asked what he remembers about that day, Sam said: “Not much, really. I remember going into the classroom, and I remember getting into the ambulance, and not much in between.”

Sam was burned over 37 percent of his body and spent 30 days in the burn unit at Akron Children’s Hospital.

The lingering scars on his arms, neck and face are a testament to what he has been through.

To talk to him, it’s hard to believe he’s been through so much trauma. Now 13, he speaks matter-of-factly about his experience. There’s no anger, no embarrassment.

“Occasionally, you’ll walk down the street and get an odd person staring,” he said.

“I just don’t let it bother me. I just figure if I let it go, I’m a better person than them.”

Still, that’s the nice thing about burn camp — no one stares.

“The cool thing about the camp is that all the kids here have gone through the same thing I have,” he said.

“You don’t have that kid who’s going to stare at you all week. Everyone here is just like you, I guess. Aside from here and the hospital, I’ve never seen anyone with a skin graft other than me.”

Having all suffered from burns, the kids can learn from each other, said Tommy Kelly, a fifth-year camper who will be a sophomore at Tusky Valley High School in Tuscarawas County south of Canton.

“You know, you’re pushing the young guys, telling them that it’s going to be OK, kind of like the big, older brother,” he said. “It’s like a family.”

A very big family. This year’s camp hosted 28 kids, ages 7 to 17.

The program at Akron Rotary Camp is funded by the Aluminum Cans for Burned Children campaign, led by the Wind & Fire Motorcycle Club’s Northeast Ohio chapter, which raises $15,000 to $20,000 every year.

It’s not unusual to see new campers show up with long sleeves or long pants to cover their scars, said Julie Klein, education coordinator at Akron Children’s burn unit.

“By Tuesday,” she said, “they’re not even thinking about it and they’re out there swimming.”

Campers spent one morning playing on inflatables and then swam in the afternoon.

Sam was looking forward to kayaking and canoeing, so he can tip over the canoes of other campers and then swim underneath into the air pocket created by the capsized boats.

Considering that, it’s not surprising to hear him say, “I like contact sports. I’m not sure my doctor likes contact sports, but I do.”

He plays defenseman on his middle school lacrosse team, taking part in the indoor winter season and the outdoor spring season. He takes no special precautions because of his injuries.

“The skin’s a little more fragile, but it holds together,” he said with a shrug. “I figure it’ll do what it needs to do.”

Julie Pratt said her son has been “incredibly strong."

"He just takes everything in stride,” said Pratt, who still works at Western Reserve Academy. “He got us all through this, I think … by how well he handled it all. He said he was going to get better from Day One and he did.”