Cyrus Bonczkowski
Burn survivor Cyrus Bonczkowski, 8, visits the Anaheim firefighters who came to his aid. He’ll be among the UCI campers this summer. John Murray / University Communications

Each year, up to a dozen children treated at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center are sent to a summer camp for burn survivors. According to the team that cares for them, the benefit is enormous.

“It’s a great experience for the kids,” says Dr. Marianne Cinat, the burn center’s medical director. “They get to know other children and develop real bonds based on shared experiences.”

“This changes their lives,” Cinat says.

She says campers often become lifelong friends who support each other through such common adolescent issues as dating.

Eight-year-old Cyrus Bonczkowski will be among the UCI campers this summer. In May 2009, he found a lighter in some bushes and inadvertently set himself aflame. Though his father quickly called 911 and paramedics rushed him to UC Irvine Medical Center, Cyrus suffered life-threatening third-degree burns over more than half his body. He underwent numerous operations to cut away dead skin, control infections, and place grafted and synthetic tissue over wounds to induce healing.

Cyrus was discharged in August but continues to receive care at UC Irvine. Although he faces years of rehabilitation, plastic surgery, counseling and more operations, Cinat says his prognosis for a normal future is good.

“They saved his life,” says Cyrus’ mother, Jamie Newton.

One-third of the 600 or so patients treated annually at UC Irvine Regional Burn Center are under 18. Injuries range from accidental scalds to more serious burns – like Cyrus’ – requiring skin grafts, long hospital stays and constant vigilance against infection. And each summer, dozens of children are burned stepping into beachside fire pits that appear to be extinguished.

Participation in summer camps is consistent with the burn center’s philosophy of treating survivors’ emotional as well as physical scars. The UCI team includes a psychologist as well as doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and a social worker. This year, the center will send nine children to several camps in California and Colorado selected by their parents.

“These children have a chance to be around others their age who have walked in their shoes,” says Carolee Van Strien, a UCI burn center social worker who assists patients and their families during treatment. “Their peers at school don’t know what it’s like to have a burn injury, but at camp all the children have burn injuries. They can openly talk about their skin grafts, surgeries, rehabilitation and frustration over healing-related itchiness – as well as how their lives have changed.”

“Every child we’ve sent to camp has come back with more confidence and better acceptance of their injuries and the challenges they face,” she says.

For this opportunity, campers can thank local firefighters. The Orange County Fire Authority’s mountain-bike racing team has, for five years now, raised money to pay their way. In September, the team will compete at Hurkey Creek in Idyllwild, and on April 24, firefighters will hold their fifth annual benefit for pediatric burn survivors (7 p.m. at The Auld Dubliner in Tustin).

“Although it’s exciting to race, we do it in the spirit of sending kids to summer camp,” says firefighter Michael Partee of Station 37 in Tustin. “We think this is one of the best things we can do to give back.”