Danville Express

Living - April 20, 2007

Showing they care

Rowan Branch uses executive skills to benefit children with medical problems

by Natalie O'Neill

Tiny 2-week-old Blake Smith only weighed 5 pounds when he turned blue in his mother's arms.

Just days after coming home from the hospital after his birth, Blake suddenly started showing symptoms of what was later diagnosed as encephalitis, a swelling of the brain caused by a virus that can be fatal in infants.

"We rushed him to Children's Hospital Oakland and they saved his life," said his mother Kristina Smith, an Alamo resident.

Today Blake is 7 years old and Kristina, feeling a profound sense of gratitude, has helped the Danville-based Rowan Branch raise about $378,000 for the hospital this year alone.

Last week, the group presented Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland with a $250,000 check to fund improvements on diabetes research and treatment, along with supporting a youth diabetes summer camp. Ultimately the dollars are going toward finding a cure, Smith said.

The branch also gave $100,000 earlier this year to fund general needs in the hospital.

The group is about 95 percent Danville, Alamo and Diablo women - many of whom have had similar life altering experiences with their children's health. They choose a new disorder or disease to focus on each year.

"Lots of people have compelling stories - and lots of people are incredibly grateful," Smith said.

One of those people is Alamo resident Sharon Burke, whose daughter Kathleen was misdiagnosed throughout her childhood until doctors at Children's Hospital Oakland properly diagnosed her at age 12 with cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease that causes progressive disability.

"Our doctor was at a loss ... In a way I felt a sense of relief that I finally knew what was wrong," Burke said, explaining that her daughter was showing only some of the typical symptoms.

Kathleen had been underweight and malnourished, and the diagnosis helped them cope with the disease more effectively. The Rowan Branch later funded cystic fibrosis treatment, which partially went to teaching parents bio-feedback techniques about how to care for their children, including testing mucus buildup to prevent scarring of the lungs.

The Rowan Branch raises money by holding charity events like Gala des Enfants, a dinner dance and silent auction held each October and known around town both for being a blast and benefiting a good cause.

"A lot of fundraisers are deadly dull. But this is a party," Burke said.

As the biggest contributor of all 23 active branches for the nonprofit Children's Hospital Branches Inc., the Rowan Branch has been wildly successful in the past 10 years. It was founded in 1952 and has 75 members - all women.

"I have never met such smart, savvy people as I have at Rowan. Most of them are homemakers but I swear we could run a Fortune 500 company," Burke said, noting the teamwork and organization that goes into raising money.

The Rowan Branch was named after the rowan tree, and all other 23 fundraising branches are also named after trees, an idea that stemmed from the large oak tree that stands in the hospital's courtyard.

Endocrinology chief at Children's Hospital Oakland, Dr. Suruchi Bhatia, said this year's contributions would partly be used to "broaden the family education and support group meetings" for diabetes patients. The money will also help hire a research coordinator to get the latest news in the field to families with diabetes.

In the past 10 years, Rowan Branch has also helped pay for an M.R.I. scanner at the hospital and for a machine that tests blood for sickle cell anemia, along with providing funds to translate materials into Spanish.

"When I was at the hospital, I met people who had driven three hours from Eureka to get there. We are so lucky to have them 25 minutes away," Burke said.

The youth diabetes summer camp is a getaway to give youths with the disease a chance to connect with each other. Some camp-goers live in inner city environments and could not afford to go without the donated funds.

"It's just a way for them to feel included - everybody is pricking fingers and taking blood. Some of it is talking about (the disease) but it's also just being a kid," Smith explained.

The hospital turns no child away and is in more need of equipment than many other local hospitals, in part because of the range of size and age of the patients they treat.

Burke noted that when Kathleen was getting treatment she noticed that blood pressure cuffs for testing ranged from the size of her index finger to that of an adult's wrist circumference.

In addition to Rowan's Gala des Enfants, a spring fashion show fundraiser will be put on this year at Round Hill Country Club featuring national clothing vendors. Tickets are going fast, Smith said.

"It's right before Mother's Day, and it's a fun, festive way of shopping for friends and family. It's a big to-do," she said. For more information, call Ellen Giagiari at 787-6174.

The check donated last week will be broken down as follows: $100,000 will support a diabetes nurse educator and nutritionist; $100,000 will go to a new diabetes clinical research specialist; and $50,000 will go to an education program, diabetes summer camp and supplies for new patients.

To learn more about Rowan Branch or to become a business sponsor of this October's Gala des Enfants, contact Kristina Smith at 855-9217 or visit www.rowanbranch.org

Other Rowan members who have had their children treated at the hospital include mothers of children who have nearly drowned, have had freak accidents, have been recently diagnosed with diabetes and have had open heart surgery.

"You never know when you're going to need them," Smith said.

Contact Natalie O'Neill at noneill@danvilleweekly.com


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