Alyssa Smith – Montana’s Shining Light for Camp Eyabsut

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

What amount of pain would you be willing to put yourself through if it meant it would benefit 10 people you’ve never met? What would you be willing to subject your family to if you knew the suffering would help 50 people? What level of trauma would you allow your first-born to experience if it would benefit hundreds? What if it was thousands?

Would you allow your daughter — at the tender age of 23 months — to submerge her hands in scalding water if you knew the result would be that she becomes an inspiration to burn survivors throughout the Northwest, a list that numbers in the hundreds and is likely to one day reach into the thousands?

Would you agree to first-degree burns? Second? What about third degree, when the water is so hot that it peels away not just the epidermis, but the dermis and reaches down to subcutaneous levels?

Would you agree to stand to the side and watch helplessly while your daughter, in unfathomable agony after suffering those third-degree burns at daycare, was loaded into an ambulance? And would that answer change if, terrified and surrounded by strangers, she caught your eye and started screaming over and over again “Daddy truck!” a father and daughter’s special code for going home?

Would you sign off if it meant your daughter had to spend a month in the hospital, going through rehab and physical therapy once the specialists confirmed the worst-case scenario? That the skin on her hands wasn’t going to grow back? That skin grafts would have to be taken from the same bottom doctors had slapped to jumpstart her life 23 months earlier, one of the three happiest days of your life?

Lady Griz Senior Forward, Alyssa Smith –#00.

Would you agree if it meant seeing and experiencing things over the course of four days that were so horrific and heinous that your mind needed to make a box for all the memories to be locked tightly into, just to protect you from the images replaying through your mind on an endless, unstoppable loop?

What if the accident was part of the reason your daughter, Alyssa Smith, would two decades later grow into a force of nature, a superhero for everything good, a human tornado that makes every situation she blows into better? And that everyone who is fortunate enough to come into contact with her sees a sky that is just a little bit bluer?

What if it meant she completes the Camp Eyabsut cycle? From seven-year-old first-timer at the North Bend, Wash., camp for burn survivors, to 10-year camp veteran, to beloved counselor, to one of the driving forces behind keeping the camp alive when outside forces threaten to shut it down by cutting all its funding?

If all that good would result from your daughter burning her hands, would it be worth it?

“No,” Si Smith, Alyssa’s dad, says emphatically today. “And until someone spends a month at Harborview (Medical Center in Seattle) and sees what a burn victim goes through, no.

“It’s a devastating thing to see and experience. Just awful. Alyssa was one of the least-hurt people there, comparatively speaking, and it was mind-crushing to see the amount of pain even she was in.

“So no. Unequivocally no.”

—————

Alyssa Smith, a senior on the Lady Griz basketball team, was 23 months old and at daycare the day her life changed forever. A day when an unsupervised trip to the bathroom, a hot-water heater negligently checked off as being up to code and a tipsy stool came together to change the course of herlife.

“Alyssa was potty-trained and very independent even at that age,” Si says, struggling even two decades later at the retelling. “She filled the sink up with water because she wanted to wash her hands like a good little girl, just like she’d been taught.”

Smith stepped on the stool, and who knows the exact combination of events that happened next. She had unknowingly filled the sink with hot water — that much is certain — from a hot-water tank located in a tight space directly behind the bathroom wall. Washington law requires hot-water heaters at daycare facilities to be set to a maximum of 120 degrees. Because this one could not easily be accessed, state inspectors had given it the okay, even though it was set at 140 degrees, a blistering temperature for the delicate skin on the hands of a toddler.

Maybe her balance on the stool gave way first. Or maybe the tips of her fingers hit the water and her natural recoil caused her to lose her balance. What is known: To help stop her fall, she caught herself in the way anybody would. She reached up and grabbed hold of what was available. Her hands reached over the edge of the sink and went deep into the water-filled basin.

Moments later, Si, who was home alone at the time, received a call that will stick with him forever. How could it not? Even if he knew what was coming, how could a parent possibly brace for what he heard from the other end of the line?

“The daycare center called, and I could hear this terrible screaming in the background. I had instant recognition that it was Alyssa’s voice,” he says. “The first thing I asked was, ‘Have you called 9-1-1?’ Then I told them, ‘Don’t call Vonnie.’ ”

Vonnie Smith, Si’s wife and Alyssa’s mom, was at work that morning in her job as an ultrasound technician. She was also nine months pregnant with the Smiths’ second child and expected to go into labor at any moment.

“I called one of Vonnie’s coworkers and told them that Alyssa had been hurt and was on her way to the hospital,” Si says. “Then I made it clear that someone was to drive Vonnie to the hospital. I didn’t want her driving herself. Not under those circumstances.”

Si sprinted out of the house and sped off to the daycare center.

“I was doing 85 in a 35 zone, but the roads were straight and open, so I didn’t feel like I was putting anyone in danger,” he says. The policeman who was out that morning monitoring the speeds of passing motorists thought otherwise.

With his world spinning out of control and with his injured daughter, needing him at this moment more than any previous time in her young life, just a few more blocks away, Si Smith was forced to stand down and give up the chase. But only briefly.

“I pulled over just as the ambulance was going by,” he says. “So I got out of my car, put my hands up in a nonthreatening way and yelled at the officer, ‘Where that ambulance is going? That’s where I’m going!’ And I got back in my car and sped off.”

No matter how a parent answers the questions above, of allowing even a tiny bit of harm to befall a loved one for the benefit of others, that all changes when they step into the scene that Si Smith experienced at the daycare center.

Today it’s one of the many memories locked tightly inside a box that rarely gets opened. When he does allow himself to crack open the lid and go back in time, the vivid memories return and words come slowly as the emotions hit with a vengeance.

“Alyssa’s hands. … The skin. … It was literally falling off. … It was hanging in shreds off her hands. … I’m her dad, and I’m. … I’m supposed to make things better. … And I couldn’t do anything.”

The box gets locked tight again, and given a few moments to collect himself, Si Smith invokes better memories that power-wash the uglier images from his mind and help round out his daughter’s story.

—————

Alyssa Smith spent two weeks in the hospital while she, her parents and her doctors waited. Would the skin grow back on its own, or would grafts be required to make her hands right again? Time passed, grafts were needed, two more weeks of hospitalization were in store, and Smith spent her second birthday on the eighth floor of the Harborview Medical Center.

As much as her parents wished all their attention could go toward their daughter, there was also the small matter of delivering Zach, who was still persistently remaining in Vonnie’s womb.

Alyssa and Baby Brother“Zachy”.

“When they told us that Alyssa was going to need skin grafts and that the procedure would require surgery, we called Vonnie’s doctor and told him, ‘We need to have this baby now,” Si says.

“When Alyssa came to after the surgery and found out she had a new baby brother, she just squealed, ‘My Zachy!’ She couldn’t use her hands, so she hugged him with all four of her arms and legs. I still think that was maybe the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”The box with the memories gets locked down even tighter, and better memories continue to spill into the void.

Alyssa, who is built like she’d play the role of Griz linebacker Jordan Tripp if Montana had a women’s football team, finally went home after a month in the hospital. Because blood pooling in the body at the site of a burn is the most painful situation possible, she started holding her hands above her head for long periods of time.

It might be a myth, but why mess with a legend? “That’s why she has the shoulders she has,” Si claims.

With the box now locked and returned to its proper place, the best stories of Alyssa Smith’s upbringing continue unabated.

Alyssa enjoys a ferryride.

“The first couple of times we took Alyssa out in public (without bandages), Vonnie and I were taken aback,” Si says about enduring stares, whispers and fingers pointed at their daughter. “I suppose we were even rude to a few people. We were just trying to protect Alyssa.”

Alyssa’s first instinct when the bandages finally came off was the same as anyone’s would be if they looked different than everybody else. She hid her disfigured hands in her sleeves and avoided nail polish and rings and anything else that might draw a stranger’s eyes to her hands.But that didn’t last. And anyone who knows the 2013 version of Alyssa Smith — confident, direct, irrepressible — shouldn’t be surprised. She quickly grew comfortable in her own skin. It can be left to psychologists to determine if her hands triggered a change of direction in her developing personality or if those hands simply brought her inherent personality more quickly to the surface.

Alyssa Keeps a watchful eye over baby brotherZach.

“After a while, Alyssa just started going right up to people who were staring and showed them her hands and told them, ‘I burned my hands in hot water. It was an accident,’ ” Si says.

“She actually handled it better than Vonnie and I did. She helped us grow up with her directness. She’s always known how to handle certain situations.” He says this over the phone from nearly 500 miles away, but you can picture Si Smith shaking his head in wonder, pride and thankfulness.

—————

Alyssa Smith was seven when she first heard about Camp Eyabsut. A neighbor, a firefighter who had spent time at the camp as a volunteer, planted the seed of an idea that there was a camp for burn survivors not far from the Smith’s home in Monroe that Alyssa would enjoy and benefit from. A life that was dramatically changed at 23 months was about to be changed in incalculable ways again.

Except that Si was dead-set against it. The Skagit Tribe had blessed the camp with the name Eyabsut, which means “to rise above anything.” In Si’s mind, his daughter had already overcome her challenges.

Alyssa enjoys her own camp experience at CampEyabsut.

“Alyssa had developed into a strong, healthy, independent, confident girl, and she had full range of motion in her hands. I didn’t think she needed to go to camp. I just didn’t see the purpose,” he says.

Asked today about Alyssa’s 15-year connection to the camp, Si says proudly, “I don’t know if Alyssa needed the camp, or if the camp needed Alyssa.” To become a champion for burn survivors and for the camp itself, Alyssa at first needed Eyabsut more than it needed her. She was five years into what was becoming a normal childhood. She was a burn survivor, but there were other survivors who were much worse off. And they needed her on their team.“ That first year was a huge eye-opening experience for me,” she says. “My scarring was almost nothing compared to some of the kids at camp. Here I was, thinking people were always staring at me, and I kind of caught myself doing the same thing that other people had been doing to me.“It only took me a day or two at camp when I was seven that I didn’t see the scars anymore.”

Si and Vonnie learned the lessons of the camp later that week, on friends and family day. The day concluded in the evening with a formal dance.

“It was a slow song, and Alyssa was dancing with this little boy,” Si recalls, struggling again with the emotional punch of the memories. “Their faces were six inches apart, and Alyssa’s hands were locked behind his neck.

15 years after her own camp experience, Camp Counselor, Alyssa Smith joins in the fun of a Watermelon eating contest at CampEyabsut.

“This little guy was as severely burned as a person could be. He didn’t have eyelids, he didn’t have much of a nose or ears, and it was like Alyssa didn’t even notice. He didn’t have lips, so you couldn’t really tell, but if you looked closely you could see it in his eyes. He was smiling.”

The power of the camp and its ability to change lives had claimed two more converts. Si and Vonnie were so overwhelmed by the moment that they had to walk away to collect themselves. “When we went back in, we just kissed Alyssa goodbye and went back home. We knew this was the place she was supposed to be.”“My dad kind of got it at that point,” Alyssa says. Si and Vonnie saw their daughter in action when she was just seven and in her first year at camp. Last summer Alyssa was in her fourth year as a counselor, following 10 years as a camper. Bob Robertson, a devoted Lady Griz fan whom Alyssa recruited to volunteer at the camp for a day, had the same experience as the Smiths, 14 summers later.Robertson was first turned on to Camp Eyabsut last winter when the Lady Griz held a fundraiser for the camp at their home game against Portland State. He aided the cause that day but wanted to do more.

“I emailed Alyssa after the season to see if there was anything more I could do for the camp, because I could see how passionate about it she was,” Robertson says. “It was about that time that they were told the 2012 camp was going to be canceled because of lack of funds.

“I emailed 15 of my friends and told them if they wanted to remain my friends, send money. And I promised them if they sent money that I would get an Eyabsut tattoo.”

Bob Robertson and Alyssa Smith with Sean andGeorgina.

They did, and he stayed true to his word. Ask him today to roll up his right sleeve and there sits a permanent ink reminder. Fundraising efforts around the region were enough to save the camp, which serves burn survivors from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. At least for 2012.

He had collected money. He had gotten the tattoo. But swept up in the passion Alyssa has for the camp, Robertson asked if he could do even more.

“So Alyssa said, ‘You should come out to camp and volunteer. Work a day or two and see what it’s all about.’ ”

He showed up on Thursday, the camp’s annual carnival day, and was pointed to where Alyssa was playing with some campers. Robertson watched from behind a corner and at a distance, transfixed for 30 minutes by what he was seeing, much like Si and Vonnie had been 14 years earlier at the dance.

Alyssa and Campers at the 2012 CampEyabsut.

“I think it was a water-balloon game. I stood at the corner of the building, she didn’t know I was there, and must have watched her play with those kids for half an hour. God almighty,” he says, then pauses to wipe his eyes.

“The love that she had for those kids and that the kids had for her? Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. You know how Alyssa is. High energy. She went from kid to kid to kid, and they were just hanging off her. You could tell they loved her to death.”Robertson was assigned the snow-cone machine and quickly assumed the nature of the camp, which can be defined in a single, all-encompassing word: fun. He told the campers who came over for snow cones that the green was broccoli flavor, the orange was carrots and that one? That’s Brussels sprouts. It led to another magical moment that convinced him you can read all you want about the camp, but you can only truly experience the extraordinary things happening there in person.“One of the kids came up to me and said, ‘You know, Mr. Bob, this is a big day for me.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He had shorts on and no shirt. I could see the burns all over his chest and arms. He told me that this was the first day he’s ever been outside without a shirt on.”

Montana’s Alyssa Smith rips the ball away from Minot State late in the second period of Monday’s contest. Thanks to Smith’s three steals, the Lady Griz rallied for a 85-47 victory. Photo by AustinSmith.

The problem with this article? The interviews took forever. Tear ducts were forced to work overtime at the recalling of camp stories.“When you’re there you can sense the comfort that these kids have being around people who aren’t staring at them because of their burns. They get to be around kids who are like themselves. They learn that it’s not their fault that they got burned,” he says.Bob Robertson? Forget going out to Camp Eyabsut for just a single day in 2013. Sign him up for the whole week. Add another person to the long list of those who have been inspired into action by Alyssa Smith.“Here’s this girl who’s just doing wonderful things for this camp,” Robertson says. “And we recruited her here to the University of Montana, probably not even knowing her whole story. We’re so damn lucky to have her.”

And you? What is it worth to you to have a camp that does what Camp Eyabsut accomplishes in so many previously shattered lives but is totally reliant on donations to operate each summer? How much would you be willing to spend even if you never met a camper or saw the things Bob Robertson experienced?

Is that worth $5 to you? $10? More? Are you willing to go without in your own life so that a burn survivor can spend one week with? Can you put a price tag on a camp that puts such an emotional stranglehold on its campers that some walk away claiming they are glad they got burned, because it allowed them to experience Camp Eyabsut?

How do you fill out a check for “priceless”?

When the Montana Lady Griz host Eastern Washington on Saturday, Feb. 2, donations will be accepted to help Camp Eyabsut continue doing the incredible work it’s doing in the lives of burn survivors. More information on the day’s fundraising efforts will be announced next week.

The Smith Family. Zach, Vonnie, Si andAlyssa.

 

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