Early in his career, Teaneck attorney Sam Davis represented several seriously burned children. “We did fantastically well for them in court,” he said, but when he ran across their families years later, “it was never good news. It was always the same story. The kids remained isolated, depressed, almost frozen in time.” Rather than moving on with their lives, “it’s as if a pause button on their development was hit.
“I found it very troubling,” Mr. Davis said. “Despite all of our high hopes that with the money put away for treatments they would now be able to recover and lead fulfilling lives, and do fun things,” they didn’t.
The young attorney was so troubled that he went to meetings of the American Burn Association and began doing research on the issue. When he learned that there were 40 burn camps in the United States, he started volunteering at one of them and developed a music program, “shipping instruments and other recreational materials to the camps.”
Some 15 years ago, eager for his former clients to get the benefit of such facilities, “I took some of the kids to camp with me,” he said. “The experience was transformative.” Ultimately, he brought all of those children to camp. Indeed, so meaningful are these camps to Mr. Davis that his son, Joshua, incorporated work at a burn camp into his bar mitzvah project. Mr. Davis hopes that other b’nai mitzvah students will do the same.
Also around this time, the director of Camp Susquehanna in Millersville, Pennsylvania, asked Mr. Davis if he would be willing to sponsor a pair of Israeli burn survivors. “That was a fateful sponsorship because I wound up meeting the head of physical therapy at Schneiders Children’s Hospital, one of the directors of the camp,” he said. “I saw that these kids had a fantastic experience and I asked why they didn’t go to camp in Israel.” It turns out there wasn’t one.
“So I said, let’s organize it. That’s where it started.”
In 2009, Camp Sababa in Kfar Galim, Israel, was founded, in cooperation with Schneider’s Children’s Hospital. But that was only the beginning. Today, Mr. Davis is the director of Burn Advocates Network and the founding director of burn camps and relief projects in five countries.
“We just finished the 11th session of Camp Sababa, the only burn camp in the Middle East,” he said. “Camp is not an international concept. The only camps that exist in the few countries that offer them are medical camps where surgeries are performed. Burn camps like Sababa, Camp Karma in India, and Camp Samba in Brazil focus on the psychosocial.
“These kids are going through a difficult struggle. But upward of 95 percent of our kids have significant positive change.”
Research bears this out. Academic studies have shown that burn survivors who participate in burn camps experienced decreased isolation, improved self-esteem, and improved social skills.
Mr. Davis recently addressed the Israel Burn Association. Calling his presentation “A Laser Unto the Nations,” he hailed the opening of the Israel Pediatric Aesthetic and Reconstructive Laser Surgery Center of Excellence (I-PEARLS) at Sheba Medical Center. The facility will offer state-of–the-art laser therapy to every child in Israel, without regard to his or her ethnicity, nationality, religion, or ability to pay. Burn Advocates Network is partnering with Sheba on I-PEARLS.
Mr. Davis said that several years ago, a camper at Camp Sababa told him that she could not get a date because of her scar. Moved by her plea for help, he researched options available to her in Israel. He recently had heard a lecture at Massachusetts General Hospital where the speakers described how they were using lasers. And not just any lasers, but Israeli lasers. “I was shocked to learn that lasers were not being used to treat disfiguring scars on children in the very country that developed and manufactures them,” he said. “I could not understand why Israeli kids did not have that choice.” He reached out to Sheba, and I-PEARLS was born.
“Sheba has become our mission partner in making laser care available to resource-challenged countries around the world,” he said. “It’s a great center of tikkun olam, and it was just named in Newsweek’s list of 10 best medical centers in the world.”
Mr. Davis described Kfar Galim as “a beautiful nature reserve, 200 yards from the Mediterranean,” which allows surfing to become one of the children’s activities. Campers have a range of disabilities, “but one of our mantras is that every kid should be able to participate in every activity.” In surfing, for example, that might involve a counselor riding along with a child who has lost a limb.
The camp has a nurse and a visiting surgeon program allowing doctors to enjoy the experience of seeing former patients enjoying themselves. “They come see the kids whose lives they saved.”
Mr. Davis and the Burn Advocates Network have been active in other countries as well.
“Seven years ago, we started a camp in Mumbai” — Camp Karma is India’s first burn camp, and operates in cooperation with KEM Hospital — “and four years ago we started one in Brazil” — that’s Camp Samba. “Brazil has enormous burn problems,” he added.
Treating children with burns is an expensive proposition, Mr. Davis said, and most countries don’t have access to lasers or burn specialists who know how to use them. Still, “this resource should be considered a necessary part of scar care. Even kids who get great burn care have difficult challenges. Where there are scarce resources, and the children lack access to burn camps or laser care, their futures can seem hopeless. Burn camps are an extraordinary way of letting these kids experience some time without being stared at or judged by their scars. They can also see role models who survived burns and have gone on with their lives.”
Mr. Davis said he was influenced by his mother, Ruth Davis — who recently turned 100 years old and was profiled in this paper — to “give back.
“Mom was active in mental health outreach and dad was a healer,” he said. “He was a physician/surgeon who ran army hospitals during the Second World War. He practiced medicine unconstrained by what managed care has brought about. My older brother was an orthopedic surgeon. I was surrounded by medicine as I grew up in a home attached to my dad’s office.
“One of the more curious coincidences is that as a child, Dad was on the medical staff of Holy Name Hospital,” a position he held for 40 years. “I spent a lot of time in the doctor’s waiting room and other places at Holy Name. It was a great feeling when I joined forces with Holy Name to help burn survivors in Haiti.”
Mr. Davis has worked closely with the hospital in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. While Holy Name continues to send doctors there, “we were able to deliver 50 tons of medical supplies because of our working alliance with Royal Caribbean. The cruise ships were a flotilla of medical supplies.”
He said that while the earthquake ruptured gas lines and took down electrical wires, and therefore caused fires, even more pediatric casualties were the result of the traditional cooking devices called “rechauds,” which badly scalded hundreds of kids with boiling oil or water. Rechauds are charcoal-fired hibachis that sit on stilts about two to three feet high. “The tremors launched their cauldrons into the air, burning children within a perimeter of several meters around them,” he said. The burn center in Port Au Prince was out of commission, so people traveled north to the city of Milot, to Sacre Coeur Hospital, which had set up many tents to act as surgical facilities to accommodate this medical migration. That hospital — which Davis describes as one of the best run in Haiti — is a project overseen and supported by Holy Name.
Mr. Davis arranged for the shipment of the first oxygen generator to North Haiti, which was essential for surgery. He has begun the process of establishing an I-PEARLS satellite in that country. Holy Name is returning the courtesy by shipping the lasers.
How has one person managed to accomplish all that Mr. Davis has created? “The doors just kept opening,” he said. “Opportunities to relieve children’s suffering just fell into place. Our partners like Sheba and volunteers from Schneiders are very committed to rescuing children in distress.”
Still, he noted that most nations have not come to grips with the truth about burns. “Eighty percent of the problem is psychological,” he said. Even with the physical handicaps that must be overcome, the psychological component is pivotal. “How do you get burn victims to reintegrate, accept their physical condition, and not buy into what everyone is saying — ‘You’re a burned, scarred kid. We’ll stare at you, bully you, make you miserable.’”
Parents also may be part of the problem, overprotecting and sheltering their children, which isolates them even further. Mr. Davis addresses parents before every camp session; during Camp Sababa’s 10th anniversary, he had them come to camp. “I would love to have a day for family members,” he said. “They would be ecstatic to see how different their children are at camp.”
In an average year, Mr. Davis visits Israel two or three times, Haiti once or twice, Brazil once, and India once. As more I-PEARLS satellites are added, he said, he will have to travel more. He has taken his children to many of the locations he visits; when she was 18, his daughter Alana, now studying for her master’s of public health at Columbia University, helped him get things organized in Haiti.
Over the last 10 years, Burn Advocates also has sponsored seven burn surgeons, “mostly post-grads or those in their first year out of surgical residency, to attend American Burn Association meetings and visit burn centers to shadow the doctors there,” Mr. Davis said. “These enlightened residents will play a major role in running the laser centers we hope to open this year in Haiti.
“Our message is simple: Burn camps elevate the spirit, lasers heal the scars. There are many more countries whose suffering children we can help.”