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Children's Health

Camp with a special focus gives comfort and fun to grieving children

Camp Magik helps grieving children deal with their loss.

Camp MAGIK provides grieving children with professional counseling and fun activities

Weekend sleepover camps for children can be about more than crafts and canoeing.

During the past two decades, Rene McClatchey has helped hundreds of  grieving youngsters recover from devastating losses.

Every year, McClatchey, an assistant professor of social work at Kennesaw State University, runs three weekend-long sessions called Camp “MAGIK,” an acronym for “Mainly About Grief In Kids.” Registration is open now for this year’s first camp, which takes place April 25-27 in Cartersville.

Supported by charitable donations and volunteers, all three camps are free. They are divided into two groups, one for ages 7 to 11 and the other for ages 12 to 17.

While the children spending the weekend at camp get professional counseling for grief, they also get a chance to just be kids having fun. They go swimming, climb a rope course and hike the foothills of North Georgia. “Diversions” are important for these kids in a very literal sense.

The camps are especially for children suffering from what professionals call “complicated grief,” a condition that differs from normal mourning but can be hard to identify.

Children can be hit so hard by loss that they question the value of their very existence, said McClatchey. “It’s thinking, ‘I don’t know how I can go on, life has no meaning anymore.’ ”

“It becomes complicated when these feelings keep hanging on and there is no relief from them,” said McClatchey. Her camps are intended to get kids past this point, to give them hope, and to keep them moving forward. Sometimes it can be difficult to know which kids need help.


The unrecognized need


“The kid that gets into trouble at school after Mom dies, he’ll be sent to camp because they know something is going on with him. But the kid who is quiet and overachieves is the one that I’m concerned about,” said McClatchey, “because you usually miss that one.”

CampMAGIK_KidRepressed grief can have devastating consequences down the line, including suicide.

It doesn’t help that our culture pressures people to get over loss quickly.

“We don’t allow people to stay in a state of bereavement for very long, whereas in other cultures there can be a whole year of mourning,” said Betsy Vonk, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Georgia and McClatchey’s research collaborator.

The timing of the death and whether it could be anticipated determine how a family responds. McClatchey and Vonk recently published a study showing that treatment may be more effective if the cause of death is taken into account, and counseling is tailored to the individual in bereavement.

When a loved one’s death comes as a shock, Vonk said, survivors might be left with “some very complicated relationship dynamics that were unresolved when the person died, and the grieving person can’t let go because they’re still trying to sort it all out.”

Environmental factors can also complicate grieving, and McClatchey says many of Camp MAGIK’s kids come from inner-city neighborhoods. “They hear ambulance sirens more often and there are more gunshots. So they become hypervigilant.” Children from low-income families are less likely to have access to mental health services, too, and Camp MAGIK may be their only chance to receive professional counseling.


Parents welcome


“We accept based on need,” said McClatchey. “We have to give preference to those who have lost a parent or sibling.”

Roughly 55 to 60 kids attend each camp. McClatchey says it would not be therapeutic if the camps were any larger. Due to high demand, they do not accept repeat campers.

Besides Cartersville, the camps are held in Hampton and Clarkesville.

Although Camp MAGIK focuses on children, McClatchey says the experience also helps parents who come along for the weekend. In fact, parents are encouraged to attend.

“What happens is that the child won’t talk to the parent because they don’t want the parent to start crying, and the parent doesn’t talk to the child about the loss because the parent doesn’t want the child to cry,” said McClatchey. “We encourage them to grieve together and we encourage them to answer questions honestly.”

For more information, visit or call 404.790.0140. Thanks to a grant from The Moyer Foundation and other private donations, Camp MAGIK sessions are free for children. Reservations are necessary.


Andrew Lowndes is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in health and medical journalism at Grady College at the University of Georgia. He studied neurobiology as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and hopes to explore mental health topics as a science writer.



Starved for words? Program uses talking to nourish kids’ brains

Photo courtesy of Thirty Million Words Initiative

Photo courtesy of Thirty Million Words Initiative

A chasm exists in language learning.

It involves the cumulative total of words that babies and toddlers hear — and even more importantly, the words they don’t hear. It’s called the “30 million word gap.”

“Research shows that by three years of age, children from low-income households hear 30 million fewer words than a child from a professional family,” says Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald

“Language is nutrition for the brain,” says Fitzgerald, an ob/gyn. She has placed the word gap high on Georgia’s top 10 public health priorities for 2014.

If children don’t have good language skills, they can’t make good progress. And Georgia is losing too many before the age 3 when it comes to verbal proficiency.

“Placing a child in front of a television set won’t fill that gap,” Fitzgerald says. And once they fall behind with their vocabulary, it’s difficult for them to catch up. Research also shows that use of language in the home provides children with the richest vocabulary. Encouraging families to speak in the language they are most comfortable with is also important.

There are plenty of Georgia organizations interested in helping. This past December, the United Way of Greater Atlanta pledged to support the “Talk With Me Baby” program. It will give $500,000 each year for three years toward a new collaborative effort.

The Georgia program will begin by getting health care providers to start talking. Training nurses to introduce parents to the idea of talking to their babies is a crucial component. Training will extend to pediatric nurses, nurses in hospitals’ labor and delivery departments, and even those nurses who care for pregnant women.

The program will offer instructional videos for WIC clinics. These educational videos are for parents and health care providers to use together. Reminders for parents to start talking, such as magnets for the refrigerator, text messages or a smart phone app will also be part of the overall plan.

These varied applications can support parental or caretaker instructions. For example, if the infant is ready to try a banana, parents need to talk to the baby about the banana. Share with the infant that the color is yellow and the texture is soft. These are not difficult words.

The idea is to make sure when parents place bits of banana on a feeding tray there is added communication. The hope is it will continue throughout the day — every day. Although infants can’t respond in language, the words help to feed their brains.

“This innovative program came about as a response to a collaborative effort,” says Jennifer Stapel-Wax, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory and director of Infant and Toddler Clinical Research Operations at the Marcus Autism Center.

“In addition to all the babies living in generational poverty, we want everyone to spend more time talking with their infants,’’ Stapel-Wax says. “We believe this is the program that can make a difference,” she says.

The state’s Department of Public Health and Department of Education, Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and Georgia Tech are all involved. At the helm is the Marcus center. There are specific measurable outcomes that serve as goals, such as grade-level reading proficiency for all children by the end of third grade.

“We were looking for the right available workforce, who could encourage and educate parents in the value of talking with their infants and children,” says Stapel-Wax. “We think we have it.”

“One area is to enrich vocabularies and fuel their young brains with language,” explains Stapel-Wax. “Babies are at risk for missing critical language nourishment.”


Not just what but why

The concept of this word gap isn’t new.

Dr. Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics and director of the pediatric cochlear implantation program at the University of Chicago, is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Suskind and her team believe that at the heart of every language environment lies a very tangible and ultimately modifiable variable: parent talk.

Illinois’ Thirty Million Words is an innovative parent-directed curriculum that focuses on the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and affect his or her future.

The program aims to raise a child’s early language environment to the level of a key public health indicator.

“Georgia is going to be at the forefront of this work and I’m very excited to learn about it,” says Suskind. “Nurses, too, are going to play a very big part.”


Photo from Thirty Million Words Initiative

Suskind is passionate about helping to narrow the achievement gap and to ensure that all children reach their full potential.

The bottom line: The kids who start out ahead, stay ahead; the kids who start out behind, stay behind, according to Chicago’s Thirty Million Words Initiative. There is plenty of room for improvement nationwide, and Georgians are stepping up to the plate.

Ashley Darcy Mahoney, assistant professor and neonatal nurse practitioner at Emory’s School of Nursing, says, “We have the right project with the right people to bring everything together.”

Getting at the reason why low-income families talk to their children less is a key issue, says Mahoney, and the question “does not have [only] one answer.”

There may be cultural factors involved, or other things, such as single-parent homes, long working hours, or simply lack of knowledge, says Mahoney.

“Nurses occupy a privileged position of influence and trust among patients,” Mahoney says. “We can also provide important professional leadership in this effort. Our goal is to teach families about the importance of talking with their baby and how easy it is to do.’’


Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.

Sharing medical stories: The blossoming of hospital social media

Emmy Lott at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Emmy Lott at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

When Atlanta-area couple Emory and Courtney Lott adopted their daughter Emmy, she was just 3 weeks old, but they were already anticipating frequent visits to the doctor’s office.

Emmy was born with sickle cell disease. Now 4 years old, she suffers from debilitating symptoms such as limb pain, high fevers and spleen problems. She has been admitted to the hospital more than 50 times.

Sickle cell deforms red blood cells and causes them to clog small blood vessels. This creates a process of inflammation and oxygen starvation, resulting in intense pain. The disease evolved as a mutation to protect people against malaria, and sub-Saharan Africa is one of the major areas where that took place. That is why the sickle cell trait, which occurs in various ethnic groups, is especially common among African-Americans.

Last March, Emmy developed a severe case of acute chest syndrome, a potentially fatal lung-related complication that occurs in some sickle cell patients. Emmy’s treatment and recovery required an extended stay in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite Hospital. It was during this particular admission that her mother decided to share Emmy’s story via social media.

“She was very, very sick, so our doctor suggested that I make a Facebook page as a way to take my mind off of how sick my child was,” Courtney Lott said. “The page was a way to update people, have people praying, and let them know what was going on.”

Lott created a Facebook page, “Pray for Emmy,” which has grown into a group with more than 3,800 followers. Lott posts on the page fairly often, as followers inquire about Emmy’s condition and express interest in how she is doing overall.

EmmyLottCHOA“Emmy is like a little celebrity,” Lott said. “I’d say that 99.9 percent of the time, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response on social media.”

Just a decade ago, social media groups like Emmy’s did not even exist. In fact, most social media platforms were just starting out and were rarely, if ever, exclusively used for health care communications.

Now, hospitals all over the state and the nation are using social media.

According to the Georgia Hospital Association, 77 member hospitals currently have Facebook pages and 41 have Twitter accounts.​

“In many hospitals throughout Georgia, social media has become an integral part of the way that these organizations communicate with patients, families and employees,” said Erin Stewart, the GHA’s director of communications and social media. Use of social media “has helped strengthen hospital-patient relationships and has allowed hospitals to be part of the conversation that members of their community were already having about them.”

Tracy Dean, manager of social media content at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, has watched the rise of social media and the key role it plays in CHOA’s engagement with the patient community.

“From the grocery store to baseball fields, the care we provide is a topic of conversations between moms and dads, grandparents and neighbors,” she said. “Today many of the conversations have moved online with social media. These open platforms amplify messages and allows for us to publicly engage with these individuals and groups of people.”


Knowing the risks

Of course, people’s social media posts can potentially reveal a lot of personal information, sometimes including sensitive medical data. And so, as more health care facilities turn to social media, questions have emerged about privacy. The Emergency Care Research Institute released new guidance on social media practices in early 2012.

In a January 2012 press release, Paul Anderson of ECRI addressed the importance of establishing social media policies and procedures to counteract privacy concerns and other potential risks.

Emmy and Courtney Lott

Emmy and Courtney Lott

“I won’t tell you that you have to join Facebook or set up a Twitter account, but your patients and staff are using these tools,” Anderson said. “Yes, there are privacy and reputational risks, but social media can present tremendous opportunities for hospitals to communicate with their communities, patients and staff.”

At CHOA, Dean said, her team first addressed HIPAA privacy concerns when it sought to align hospital-wide social media with employee policies on e-communications. This led to the establishment of CHOA’s social media policy.

“According to our social media policy, by posting any content to our social media sites, the user grants Children’s the right to reproduce, distribute, publish or display content on our channels,” Dean said. “In addition, CHOA’s Marketing and Communications obtains digital consent forms for all patients we photograph and film — this safeguards us to have this content appear on our social channels.”

When Courtney Lott posts photos and status updates to social media with the #CHOA hashtag, the hospital’s social media policy is in the forefront of her mind.

“I always try to be very cautious about what I am posting and make sure it doesn’t go against any of their policies,” she said. “I am also friends with a lot of the nurses, so I check with them before posting. They are supportive of that.”

The sharing that’s possible through social media has helped to form patient relationships and online communities for families like the Lotts. CHOA’s official social media have shared Lott’s Facebook posts about Emmy in an effort to support her and raise awareness of sickle cell disease. A special digital relationship has developed between the hospital and the families it serves.

“We saw this as an opportunity to provide engaging content through our digital channels that would help people open up and connect about their experience,” Dean said.

EmmyPortraitFor Lott, social media engagement has led to friendships with fellow families of sickle cell patients at CHOA, and support from friends and complete strangers.

“Using social media as a white mom with a black child, it can be very hard for me to connect with others,” she said. “So I’ve used social media to find a community and to have people who know what I am going through.”

Today, Emmy continues to have occasional high fevers and blood transfusions. Her severe symptoms sometimes result in precautionary emergency room visits. When that happens, Lott spreads the word through social media.

“We are at CHOA much as we are at home.” Lott said. “They are truly our second family and I am thankful for that. We just sing their praises.”


Natalie Duggan, a GHN intern, is a senior at Emory University, majoring in journalism and anthropology, specializing in health writing. She has previously interned at the CDC, the CNN Medical Unit, and was a summer 2013 ORISE research fellow at the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases.

How safe are kids’ sports? Experts discuss concerns, progress

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addresses safety in sports as CNN's Sanjay Gupta looks on.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addresses safety as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta looks on.

Playing sports is a valuable experience in a child’s development, yet steps can be taken to increase safety for young athletes, a panel of experts said at a recent Atlanta forum.

The panel included prominent names from such diverse fields as medicine, sports, education and the media. They agreed there’s a need for more awareness and understanding of sports concussions — and how to prevent and treat them.

The science relating to concussions “is still developing,’’ said one panelist, Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general and now the co-chairman of the National Council on Youth Sports Safety. “There’s still so much we don’t know.”

The Feb. 26 presentation, “Making Play Safe for Kids,’’ was part of a speaker series from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Blank himself, who owns the Atlanta Falcons, made remarks before the discussion, as did Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League.

Goodell spoke of his own daughters playing sports. “I want my kids to participate; I want them to be safe,” he told the audience. “You don’t have to compromise safety to do it well. I think this issue is critical for our children.’’

The NFL commissioner has pushed for increased safety in football, as the league has toughened its protocols for players who have suffered concussions.

Last August, the NFL agreed to a $760 million settlement with more than 4,000 former players who had sued the league over head injuries.

Blank, a co-founder of The Home Depot, noted that the Falcons and the NFL have supported a program, Heads Up Football, for youth leagues that teaches concussion awareness and proper helmet fitting, and proper techniques for tackling. The Falcons also backed the passage of a new Georgia law establishing protocols for school athletes who have suffered concussions.

The panel’s moderator, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, pointed out that a concussion is a brain injury, and can even occur without a direct blow to the head, as in a car accident. It has to be treated as a serious matter whatever the setting.

What to ask and what to demand


Though public attention to sporting events and star athletes may be greater than ever, there is some evidence that fewer young Americans are signing up to play sports.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that combined participation in the four most popular U.S. team sports – basketball, soccer, baseball and football – fell among boys and girls ages 6 through 17 by roughly 4 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Gupta, a neurosurgeon, approached that issue directly. He asked the panel a question: With the risks of concussions and other injuries, should parents let their kids play sports?


Photo courtesy of Safe Kids Worldwide

Satcher said sports can be a good learning experience for children, teaching them leadership, self-confidence and teamwork, among other things.

As a parent, Satcher continued, he would want to know what the state’s sports injury rules are, whether the coach has training in safety and whether an athletic trainer is available.

Not all sports leagues are equally funded, said Satcher, also founder of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. “All sidelines are not the same’’ when it comes to safety.

Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide, said she has found a widespread “hunger for information’’ about player safety for kids.

She said key sports safety issues for children include: Are they hydrated? Have they had a physical exam before being cleared to participate? Are they physically prepared to enter a game? Are they emotionally ready?

There are not enough athletic trainers in youth sports, Carr added.

One sports safety problem is the number of injuries from overuse of repetitive motions. These often come when a young athlete only focuses on one sport year round, experts say.

Young athletes should not be afraid to speak up when they think they’ve had a concussion, Carr added.

The problem of players keeping quiet is a real one. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council said young athletes in the United States face a “culture of resistance” to reporting when they might have a concussion and to complying with treatment plans, which could endanger their well-being.


Activity and nutrition


Gupta, reiterating the danger of brain injuries, said proper treatment – including mental rest from school lessons – is important to recovery from concussion.

GA students complete fitness test

Students at Westside High School in Bibb County participate in a fitness test.

Alexis Glick, CEO of GENYOUth Foundation, said children seeking a role model should consider an athlete such as NFL quarterback Alex Smith, who said he had no regrets about sitting out games due to a concussion. He eventually lost his quarterback job to his San Francisco teammate Colin Kaepernick.

At the same time, the panelists noted the well-known truth that inactivity poses great dangers to health. Kids need exercise, and schools should encourage them to get it, whether the kids are competing on a team or not.

Glick noted that physically active, well-nourished children perform better academically, behave better at school and miss school less often.

But she said states have cut access to physical education and recess in their emphasis on boosting standardized test scores.

“As a mother of four kids, I want my children to be student-athletes,” said Glick of GENYOUth, which runs the “Fuel Up to Play 60” school health and wellness program.

Satcher said some school programs in Georgia are making a difference in getting students to be more active and eat healthier foods. And he noted a bit of good news that was reported just before the forum: Obesity rates in young children were down.

“We’re moving in the right direction,’’ Satcher said. “We are making progress. We’re saving a lot of children from diabetes and hypertension.’’



Fighting a real horror: Poetic Halloween scarecrow takes stand on TB

Edgar Allan Crow

Edgar Allan Crow

The 131 hand-crafted scarecrows planted at the Atlanta Botanical Garden this Halloween season include fairy godmothers,  mermaids and a purple people eater.

One scarecrow, though, has a distinct public health message.

“Edgar Allan Crow’’ is the work of the TB Elimination Team from the CDC, and he is “a-ravin’’ against tuberculosis.

The disease remains a massive killer worldwide, accounting for more than 1 million deaths annually. And though the U.S. rate is declining, almost 10,000 cases were reported in the country last year.

The Botanical Garden has hosted the scarecrows exhibition for 11 years, and Edgar Allan Crow took first prize in this year’s “non-professional category.’’

Edgar Allan Poe and his family were greatly affected by tuberculosis. When the future literary giant was a young child, his mother died from TB. Years later, his wife, Virginia, died of the disease.


Corny, but a labor of love


The Poe scarecrow was created by staff at the Division of Tuberculosis Elimination. They met together during non-working hours to build the scarecrow and write the poem that borrows from Poe’s “The Raven’’ to proclaim its anti-TB message.

(Last year’s CDC entry invoked the image of  “Gone with the Wind’’ character Scarlett O’Hara. She was portrayed in the classic 1939 movie by actress Vivien Leigh, who died of TB in 1967.)

Here’s the poem that accompanies Mr. Crow:

Once upon an autumn dreary

As I pondered, none too cheery,

Late one night these words I heard

Coming from a learnéd bird–

Spoken by a raven or a crow,

I can’t be sure.

Speaking with a bold presumption

Of this old disease Consumption,

“We must fight this airborne menace

That still lurks from Beijing to

Venice (California)

‘Til we beat this ancient foe!”

Let’s fight TB together

‘Til TB is nevermore!

Quoth the crow…“TB Nevermore!”




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