Kidney center gives kids, others chances they wouldn’t otherwise have |

Kidney center gives kids, others chances they wouldn’t otherwise have

by Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News

Tucked inside the YMCA of the Rockies, the Vacation Kidney Center is a little gem that many visitors may not even know exists.

Yet so many have come to depend on the center, which not only offers dialysis for patients with kidney disease, but also a chance for normalcy and independence. For a handful of residents, it is the sole reason why they live in the Fraser Valley.

Judith Schroedl, for instance, would have to drive her daughter Maria to Denver three days a week if it weren’t for the YMCA center, located 10 minutes up the road from her residence at Sunset Ridge. Maria, a 35-year-old, receives kidney dialysis Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, five hours at a time.

To Judith and Maria, the center is a godsend, Judith said. It is the only dialysis center that exists in a mountain community.

“We could not do it without them,” said Judith, who adopted Maria when she was 5 years old.

“If we hadn’t selected Winter Park as our home years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to stay here.”

The Vacation Kidney Center opened in 1990 and was named after Marcia Murphy Lortscher, the longest surviving kidney transplant patient in the world. Today, two nurses keep the center running nine months out of the year, three days a week.

Charge nurse Sheri Sauthoff and dialysis technician Sue Freitas smile sweetly at their patients as they offer them magazines and DVDs during their treatment, which usually lasts up to five hours. It is the end of November, and there are only two patients receiving dialysis ” a treatment that filters the toxins out of their bloodstream through a machine ” a function an otherwise healthy kidney would perform. One of the patients is Maria, who happily chats up the nurses as she stares into her mini-DVD player.

The center closes at the end of the month and reopens in mid-February, due to the lack of patients in the winter. Sauthoff, who has been at the center for 10 years, explained that the busiest time of year for them is the summer, when campers with kidney disease from all over the U.S. come up for vacations. Sauthoff estimated she treats roughly 250 to 300 patients a year.

For some vacationers, it is their first time away from home ” away from the binding treatments that force them to stay close to a dialysis center. Vacation Kidney Center offers these patients something most take for granted: A trip to the mountains with their friends and family.

“Some of the campers never have a chance to get away and be a kid. (Here), they get to experience all the fun we take for granted,” said Sauthoff.

The camp is popular with adults too, she added. Every year a group of 30 to 40 adults with kidney disease stay at the YMCA with their friends and families, and go fishing, hiking and camping. The patients enjoy a vacation with their loved ones and are able to receive hemodialysis care in their backyard.

A scholarship program ” funded through the Hughes Endowment Fund ” offers free week-long vacations at the YMCA for children with kidney disease and their siblings. For children, not only is it a chance to be away from their parents; it’s a chance to make new friends. The campers stay at Camp Chief Ouray with other kids their age ” some with a kidney disease, many without.

Some patients require 10-hour dialysis treatments overnight. For those campers, the nurses often allow the whole cabin of children to stay over at the kidney center. This offers them a chance to stay with their new friend, and see what dialysis is all about.

“For kids who can’t normally have sleepovers … We try to be really flexible to make that camping experience enjoyable,” Sauthoff said.

Endowment fund is a local endeavor

The Hughes Endowment Fund was started by Kent and Jancie Hughes, two longtime residents who moved to Winter Park in 1993 for the sole reason of the Vacation Kidney Center. Their son, Scott, had been receiving kidney dialysis since he was 14 years old. When the Hughes decided to retire, they chose Winter Park so that Scott could receive treatment when he visited them from college.

“The reason we chose Winter Park is because it is the only ski area that has a dialysis center, and we wanted Scott to visit us,” Jancie recalled. “It was serendipitous because we couldn’t’ have found a better place to live.”

When Scott graduated from the University of Oregon, he moved to Winter Park to figure out what to do next. Although he received a kidney transplant during high school, the disease returned to his new kidney during his senior year in Oregon, and he regularly received treatment at the YMCA’s center after graduation.

Scott familiarized himself with the center and the campers who received treatment. He so enjoyed the idea of the camps and the center that he inquired about a job.

“Scott was really excited about the idea of the camp. He talked about when summer came, maybe he could be a camp counselor,” Jancie said. “Then, things just didn’t go well that winter.”

Scott died on April 23, 1994, when he was 24 years old. Jancie and Kent, looking for a place to put their energy and grief, began the Scott Hughes Endowed Scholarships for Dialysis Campers, in memory of their son who never let kidney disease define him, Jancie said. That’s what he liked best about Vacation Kidney Center; it gave people independence, Kent said.

“The fund pays for children to go to camp, since Scott thought it was such a unique camp,” Jancie added, then paused thoughtfully. “I guess it’s, in a way, a symbol for us of remembering Scott, by helping other kids that are going through the things he had to live with.”

Run for Independence helps fund scholarships for campers

The Hughes Endowment Fund supports a week-long camping trip to Camp Chief Ouray, for children ages 8 to 16 years old who undergo dialysis or have received a kidney transplant. If the child has a sibling, their trip is covered too. The scholarship can also provide camping equipment, such as sleeping bags and transportation, if needed. It is administered by the Children’s Hospital Foundation and its Major Gifts Director Les Lee.

Lee said he gave out 10 “camper-ships” last year ” for five children and five siblings. He would like to give out more scholarships, he said, but sometimes the camps are a tough sell to parents who have never let their child out of their care. Oftentimes patients also aren’t comfortable leaving their parents to do something on their own.

It’s a big step toward independence, Lee pointed out.

“As a parent, you’re more afraid than the kid,” Kent explained. “It turns the family upside down. But if you can bring the kids up here, Mom and Dad ” their pressures is gone for bit, even if it’s just a week.”

Jancie added she and Kent have received letters from parents claiming the camp gave them a chance to get to know their other child again, and each other.

Eventually the Hughes started a fundraiser called the Run for Independence, an annual 5-mile run in Winter Park and Fraser that raises money for the camp scholarships. It takes place around the Fourth of July, but “independence” also stands for the center, Kent explained, because of the independence it gives to campers.

The endowment fund and the Run for Independence have grown in popularity over the years, and the Hughes hope they both continue to grow. Last year the run had roughly 400 runners and raised $1,500.

The check was presented to Lee last week at the center by the Hughes and the Winter Park/Fraser Valley of Chamber, which promotes the run.

Center’s temporary closing an inconvenience for some

As Maria received one of her last treatments before the center closes for the winter, she sat comfortably at her dialysis machine ” one of five ” in front of a big window.

One of the nurses handed her a magazine to read, and she held it close so she could read the fine print.

Maria has been on dialysis since 2000. She is learning disabled and functions at a 13-year-old level ” fortunately, a very pleasant 13-year-old, her mother chided. She also has a vision and hearing handicap and a few physical ones.

But Maria always takes things “as a matter of course,” her mother said. Dialysis has become part of her life, and she accepts it. Although Maria used to have a job at the ski area washing dishes in the kitchen, she is unable to go back to work because of her kidney disease. She is on the list to receive a transplant in four years.

“Her goal is to go back to work. She loves working,” Judith said. “She enjoys being around other people.”

While dialysis is an arduous task for most patients, Maria makes the best of it. It’s her social outlet, Judith added; she enjoys being with the nurses.

“Sheri and Sue both take such special care of Maria. We joke that it’s the Ritz Carlton of dialysis,” Judith said. “She’s been dialyzed all over the country, but of all the centers she’s been at, the one in Winter Park is by far the best. It’s small, personal services ” most are very large centers.”

The center is also surrounded by windows that look over the Continental Divide, and in the summer there are hundreds of hummingbirds. Many centers are large and cheerless, with few or no windows.

When the center closes for the winter, Judith and her husband David stay in Arizona for a month. But until that time, they will be driving Maria to Denver for dialysis.

Driving over Berthoud Pass three days a week can be a “real hassle,” Judith admitted ” especially when the weather is bad.

Keeping the facility open year-round, however, is not possible given the amount of patients in the winter months. About three to four years ago, the facility had four full-time dialysis patients, and the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, which helps run the center, considered keeping it open year-round, Sauthoff said.

But it quickly realized that it wasn’t cost-effective. The facility would need to treat closer to 15 permanent clientele in order to stay open, she added.

Judith wishes the center was open year-round, she said, but she’s “extremely thankful” that it exists at all.

“We live in the best place you can possibly live if you need dialysis. She loves it there. It’s a great place for her, for her having to go there.”

– To reach Stephanie Miller, call (970) 887-3334, ext. 19601 or e-mail

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