Web site offers ailing people a cherished link to loved ones

Friends of district judge flock to online service

Howard County

May 19, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

When news went out a few months ago that Howard District Judge C. James "Kit" Sfekas was battling medullary thyroid cancer, the response was instantaneous - and profuse.

Well-wishers overwhelmed phone lines at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, where Sfekas, 49, was recovering from surgery in the intensive care unit. They left messages - sometimes 15 or 20 a day - at the family's Mount Hebron home.

"I felt guilty because people cared and I couldn't get back to them," said Sfekas' wife, Lauren, who was busy caring for her husband.

Word of an Internet site that offers free Web pages for folks fighting illness finally offered an answer. Through CaringBridge, a Minnesota nonprofit organization, family friend Deb Fieldhouse was able to create a Web site devoted to Sfekas' illness and recovery, complete with pictures, regular updates and a way for well-wishers to enter messages.

Those who care about Sfekas - from courthouse staff members to local lawyers to family friends to the young people he coaches in various sports - are flocking to the site. Since its creation March 4, the page has logged more than 7,000 visitors and 400 guest book messages.

"You know how there are certain people in life who touch everyone they meet? He's just one of those people," said Fieldhouse, a community and government relations coordinator for Westfield Corp., a shopping center developer. "I think people just feel lucky to know him."

Before the Web site was set up, Fieldhouse provided regular updates on Sfekas' condition to an e-mail list of about 150 people.

Web sites such as the one set up for Sfekas are not new. But in the past it has required technical know-how - or a computer-savvy friend - to create a serviceable home page.

For Fieldhouse and the Sfekases, CaringBridge simplified the process, with a Web site sign-in that asked for basic information before setting up a page.

Created in the aftermath of a highly successful Web page set up in 1997 for Baby Brighid - a premature Minnesota girl who died in surgery several days after her birth - and her mother, the service now boasts about 2,400 active Web pages, many for folks battling illness, said Sona Mehring, who founded CaringBridge in 1997.

CaringBridge pages have received more than 11 million hits and resulted in more than 400,000 guest book entries, she said.

"It's great to report good news, but the really tough news ... you're able to communicate that very effectively, and the multiple phone calls and same stories aren't needed," said Mehring, who owns a computer consulting company in St. Paul.

Lauren Sfekas said the site has not only offered a simple way to publish updates of her husband's condition, it also has helped family members as they have faced each new unknown.

Friends they have not seen in decades have logged on to the site and posted messages. Community members have offered prayers. The young people Kit Sfekas has coached and helped have offered him the support they say he has given them over the years.

The site also has allowed those who know the judge only in his professional life to learn about him as a person - to see pictures of his two daughters and to read about his community activities.

"You just don't see him on the bench anymore. He's a real person, active and loved," said Howard assistant public defender Jenny Maddox, who checks the Web site regularly.

Lauren Sfekas, a state Workers' Compensation commissioner, said the response to the Web site - as well as a meal sign-up coordinated by Fieldhouse and a handful of prayer services organized on Sfekas' behalf - has been "an incredible source of strength."

Kit Sfekas checks the Web site regularly and responds to well-wishers via e-mail, his wife said. Once he wrote his own condition update: "My spirits are good and I'm keeping a very positive attitude. I have read every card, e-mail, note on the website, etc. and I can't begin to tell how much that has meant. You have been so extraordinarily kind to me and my family that I could never repay you. ... "

The community response has been "an incredible source of strength," Lauren Sfekas said.

"It just gives him the kick he needs to keep fighting," she said.

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