Much-needed Getaway

Young Leukemia Patient And Family Get Week's Lodging For Ocean City Vacation, Courtesy Of A Local Foundation

July 11, 2009|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,joseph.burris@baltsun.com

It's hard to take a vacation from leukemia, but for a precious week in Ocean City, 7-year-old Tomas Nichols and his family did their best.

Their respite might not have been as loud and adventure-filled as that of other families - they spent much of their time relaxing on a beach house deck - but for them, it was a thrill just to be in a different, peaceful place. The gift of time away came from a Baltimore-based foundation, which provided the beach house for free.

"The kids are having fun; we have absolutely nothing to do," Paul Nichols, whose son was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia about two years ago, said during the family's recent beach visit. "We're still doing the medication, all the chemo he takes, but it's in a completely different environment."

The Nicholses, from Stafford, Va., are among the families of critically ill children who have taken advantage of the Ocean City-area properties owned by Believe in Tomorrow. The foundation was one of the first charities in the country, its founder says, to establish permanent vacation homes that offer families enduring the strain of a child's illness the simple gift of an inviting change of scene.

Tomas, a second-grader who enjoys soccer, reading and the Transformers action series, got a chance to slither down a water slide and steer a Coast Guard cutter during his vacation week. His leukemia has been in remission, and he is now undergoing a long-term treatment program. His father, a retired Marine, says the family heard about Believe in Tomorrow last year while Tomas was being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Nationwide, there are not many places like Believe in Tomorrow's residences. Facilities such as the George Mark House in San Leandro, Calif., provide respite housing and palliative care for terminally ill children. That might be why the local foundation's Ocean City properties have housed families from as far away as California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Word about its efforts spreads through medical facilities such as Walter Reed, and now each of the properties is filled year-round.

The Nichols family spent Fourth of July week at the foundation's single-family House on the Bay, which overlooks Assawoman Bay. Believe in Tomorrow gives priority to military families who want to stay at the property. Donated last year by an Ocean City area resident who once served in the Army, the beach house was appraised at $627,000 in 2007.

The house is among three in the Ocean City area owned by the foundation. It launched its beach house initiative in a two-story, five-unit property on 66th Street, about a block from the beach; it also owns a two-bedroom townhouse on Fenwick Island, Del. (Yet another vacation spot, a 13-room log home, is at Wisp Resort in Garrett County.)

Along with two hospital housing facilities in Baltimore, Believe in Tomorrow has provided more than 300,000 overnight accommodations to children and families from every state in the U.S. since its inception in 1986. Now as foundation officials celebrate the one-year anniversary of the House on the Bay, they're preparing to open respite houses in Phoenix, Ariz., and Landing, N.J.

"They're growing in number," said Ann Armstrong-Dailey, chief executive officer of Children's Hospice International, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that promotes hospice support through pediatric care facilities.

She lauded Believe in Tomorrow for offering respites to families that "often feel overburdened with the day-to-day challenges of having a sick child in the home."

For families like the Nicholses, the time away is important - even if it means simply curling up with a good book. One day last week, Tomas plopped onto the living room couch and buried his face in a book about dinosaurs.

He didn't bother to look up as his parents told his story, about how his leukemia forced him to miss all of kindergarten, how he pushed himself to learn to read during first grade, and how he keeps up physically with classmates.

"He doesn't give up, even when he doesn't feel well physically," said his mother, Lenka, who is originally from Prague, Czech Republic. Tomas said he's enjoyed taking part in "all the things here," adding that among the highlights this summer was that water slide. He recently saw the movie Transformers, as well.

"Most of it was scary," he said about the film, but added, "I kept my eyes open" during the most frightening scenes.

Paul Nichols remembers that at this time last year, such an outing wouldn't have been possible. "He had been using a Broviac," said Paul Nichols, referring to a catheter used to administer chemotherapy, "but then it sprung a leak inside. Now, he has an external port, which is good because it means he can swim."

Still, family members are cautious even as they try to relax. Tomas has food allergies, which means some of his food has to be specially prepared. There are also infection risks. A temperature higher than 100.3 means a trip to the emergency room.

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