By Christopher Williams
When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, their answers vary from being a superhero to being an athlete or doctor to a consistently popular choice: a firefighter.
That may be especially true locally, where handmade signs thanking firefighters and other first responders line our streets and overpasses.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Tim Wright was one of those kids who dreamed of becoming a fireman.
“Firefighting was just in his blood,” said his mother, Cathy Wright, as she recalled Wright’s reaction the first time the unmistakable sirens blared down their street to save a nearby home.
Wright remembers that morning as well. He had stayed home from school because he was experiencing severe symptoms of childhood asthma. Studies show that asthma is the most common chronic disease in children, and kids miss more days of school and have more emergency department visits and hospitalizations because of asthma than any other chronic disease.
Despite his condition, Wright pleaded with his mother take him to the scene so that he could see the brave men and women in action. His mother obliged her young son because she knew that the complications of treating and managing his asthma did not dampen his spirit and determination to be active. Plus, she encouraged him to pursue his dreams as much as any child.
Since he was 18 months old, Wright had been under the care of Dr. Myron Liebhaber at Sansum Clinic’s Allergy and Immunology Department. For the past five years he has been under the care of Dr. Jinny Chang.
The two doctors and a specialized medical staff treat patients from childhood through adulthood for conditions including asthma, allergies, pulmonary disorders, cystic fibrosis and others.
At age six, Wright enrolled in Camp Wheez, a free summer day camp for kids with asthma founded in 1978 by Dr. Liebhaber and the American Lung Association.
Now celebrating its 40th year, Camp Wheez remains a free community service program of Sansum Clinic and is staffed by doctors, other medical professionals and trained volunteers. Throughout its history, the camp has seen thousands of area kids run, jump, play and breathe more easily through its programs and activities.
“The care I received from Dr. Liebhaber and Dr. Chang has always provided me with the best medications and helped me to develop the skills I need to manage my asthma,” Wright said. “But Camp Wheez gave me something I couldn’t get anywhere else. Not only did I see that I was not alone and that a lot of other ‘normal’ kids had asthma — just like me — but the entire focus of the camp is not on what you can’t do, but on what you can.”
Wright attended Camp Wheez for six consecutive summers as he continued to learn to better manage his asthma, build his confidence and abilities, and enjoy an active lifestyle. He then returned as a camp counselor, earning community service credits while attending San Marcos High School, where he was an exuberant member of the drum corps.
Wright’s mother, meanwhile, spent 10 years as the volunteer coordinator for Camp Wheez, helping other kids to develop the same kind of can-do attitude that she encouraged in her own son.
Despite obstacles, including his asthma, that would seem to discourage Wright from becoming a firefighter, he would not be swayed. He attended Santa Barbara City College and then the University of Colorado before being selected by the U.S. Forest Service as an elite “hot shot” to fight wildfires in Northern California. By his early 20s, it seemed, Wright had achieved his childhood dream.
Unfortunately, a failed lung test on non-standard equipment would interrupt his plans. Back home, he consulted with Dr. Chang and Dr. Liebhaber, who referred him to Sansum Clinic’s Occupational Medicine Department. Workplace health specialist Dr. Mark Musicant would collaborate with Wright and his doctors to navigate and meet the health requirements of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Once again, Wright would prove what he can do. In 2015, with the support of his doctors and full disclosure regarding his asthma, and after a highly competitive application process, he was selected to join the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, where he has fought fires on the front lines in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
During the January 2018 mudslides in Montecito, Wright was part of a regional hazmat decontamination unit that was assigned to serve the search and rescue teams, including canine responders.
“I am proud to be able to do what I do,” Wright said. “But nothing would prepare me for the feeling I had while responding to the urgent needs of my own community on that scale.”
The Sansum Allergy and Immunology Department recently relocated to expanded facilities at 51 Hitchcock Way in Santa Barbara. The newly renovated facility includes onsite X-rays and a state-of-the-art pulmonary laboratory, conveniently adjacent to the clinic’s Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine Department.
Wright is not the only former camper who refuses to let asthma stand in the way of achieving his childhood dream. A slightly tattered scrapbook in Dr. Liebhaber’s office is bursting with the many photos, postcards and letters from patients and Camp Wheez’ers from across the globe who have gone on to become athletes, doctors, scientists, explorers and, in many ways, superheroes.
Camp Wheez, sponsored by Sansum Clinic, will take place this year from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, Aug. 5 – 9, at the Veronica Springs Church in Santa Barbara. Extended hours until 5:30 p.m. are also available.
For more information about signing up for Camp Wheez, call 805-681-7672 or visit SansumClinic.org/camp-wheez.