St. Louis Magazine's Excellence in Nursing Awards 2013
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Living Well Foundation
When she worked as a nurse at Washington University years ago, Jean Huelsing saw a 5-year-old girl with cirrhosis of the liver. An 8-year-old boy who was recovering from a stroke. An overweight 14-year-old who’d just had a mastectomy.
Huelsing had never reconciled herself to people getting sick and dying from preventable causes. But seeing children getting sick with adult diseases because they were obese? This she found intolerable.
“It’s the society my generation created,” she says, wincing. “You worked all day, you were tired, the kids needed food fast, and the pizza place delivered. We never realized what the repercussions would be.”
For a time, she worked at a weight-loss camp for kids—but it was run with a tight business model, and not much compassion or insight. She came home and told her husband, “Honey, give me all your money. I’ve got an idea.”
Tom Huelsing is a tool and die maker by trade, but he’s also a coach and a personal trainer with a black belt in karate. He not only agreed to help his wife start Camp Jump Start in Imperial, but also eventually started working there himself, getting the kids in shape and bully-proofing them with self-defense lessons. Three years ago, as the economy foundered, the Huelsings sold their home (not to mention Jean’s grandmother’s crystal) and moved out to the camp so they could keep it going.
She refuses to call it a fat camp, and she refuses to take the easy route, just counting calories in and calories out. She wants to know why a kid’s overeating: “Is it because they’re bored? Stressed? If you listen, they’ll not only tell you why, but they’ll give you a pretty good idea how to treat the problem.”
Two years ago, for example, she started an anxiety class. She’d heard one too many kids say, “Wow, this place is so nice. There’s no stress here.”
“Being a kid is complicated these days. And they catastrophize,” she says. Often, their parents don’t have enough time to pay attention to each drama, helping them understand what really happened and put it into perspective. “Then there’s all the media, the sensationalism.” And then there’s the shame of being fat.
“When they come here, their shoulders are slumped, and they won’t look at you,” Huelsing says. “If they could melt into the woodwork, they would.” They’re not sure what’s ahead of them, she explains, and they’re terrified of failing. What if they’re the only kid at camp who doesn’t lose weight? “They’ve tried fads; their parents have tried locking the kitchen cabinets. Nothing’s worked.”
Counselors help them unpack (“not just to be helpful, but to find the M&Ms their parents hid in their underwear because they felt guilty”), and Huelsing shows them a human heart strangled by fat. “Creepy,” they mutter. The next morning, she wakes them at 7 a.m. and weighs them. And then they see The Hill. “That hill’s your friend,” she tells them, grinning. “We go up it several times a day.” Four weeks later, they can’t wait for somebody to pull out a stopwatch and see how much faster they can run. “The hill becomes a metaphor for their whole life.”
Campers get plenty of food: three meals, two snacks, and an open salad bar at lunch and dinner. Huelsing’s learned that peer pressure can work for her: “If everybody else is having a salad, you’re going to pick up a bowl. One mother was amazed that suddenly her son ate tomatoes. Well, we have a farmer right next door. The tomatoes taste good.”
She often asks kids to name their favorite car. “Porsche!” one will yell.
“What kind of gas do you put in a Porsche?” she’ll ask, playing dumb. “Regular?”
“No way! Premium. No, nitro!”
“So tell me this: How many of you eat the dollar meals at McDonald’s? You have one vehicle to travel in for your entire life.”
People eat fast food and think they’ve eaten well because they feel full, she says. “They go through life mindless, bloated, with GI distress, headachey, without energy.” And that has consequences.
“Each summer, I see kids that are sicker and sicker,” Huelsing says. “This past year, we had 40 kids with type 2 diabetes. When they left, 17 showed no sign of the disease, and 23 had improved dramatically.” Overall, the 76 campers that year lost a total of 2,170 pounds and 1,304 inches from their waistlines. “I can’t understand why insurance doesn’t pay for this,” she says. (The camp costs about $1,000 a week, although there’s scholarship money available from parents convinced Huelsing saved their children’s lives.)
She has helped children learn to ride a bike; helped them cope with grief and loss; even created an adoption support group after watching the emotional struggles of a boy who’d been adopted from India. His parents had adopted a second child from India, too, but that boy had come from a prosperous area, and he’d arrived with all his medical records neatly filled out. “This kid was left at the railroad station with nothing, not even a note, and he had a scar on his abdomen. He wanted to know what had happened to him,” she recalls. “It made him feel like he was less, and he never could understand how he’d been abandoned like that. I said, ‘Look at the part of town you came from. Your family probably couldn’t write.’ He’d never thought of that.”
At graduation, Huelsing asked the campers her usual question: “Tell me a life lesson you learned at camp.” That boy’s answer? “I found my soul here.”
Campers can come for one month or two. “One girl, 12 years old, came for the full eight weeks. I assumed she was there to lose weight, and she did: 40 pounds. But she went home to find her father gone.” Her parents had used the time during her stint at camp to get a divorce—and she hadn’t even known they were unhappy. She regained the 40 pounds and kept going, all the way to 240 pounds.
Five years later, Huelsing received a letter: “This is a thank-you note that’s been a long time coming. But Jean, I remembered all the tools that you taught me. It’s taken me two years, but I weigh 120 pounds now.”
With most kids, gratification comes faster. “We had a dad who sent his 14-year-old daughter, and halfway through camp, he came to visit. After he saw her, he came running down the hill yelling my name, picked me up, and kissed me on the lips. Now, I’m an old married woman, happily married. But he twirled me around, saying, ‘Thank you! Thank you! I have not seen my child smile like that since she was 12.’”
Huelsing’s normally lousy with names and faces, but she thought to herself, “This is one parent I won’t forget.” Two years later, he called to say he was coming through St. Louis, and he’d love to meet her. She went to the airport and looked around.
She’d walked right past him. He’d lost 150 pounds and quit smoking, and he was on his way to Phoenix to run a marathon.
Now Camp Jump Start does programs for adults, too.
Huelsing’s presented at a national congress in D.C.; she’s published in a medical journal for physicians; she’s been interviewed by Rolling Stone; she’s founder and CEO of the Living Well Foundation. But her sense of accomplishment comes from camp.
“I’ve saved more lives here than I ever did in a traditional nursing role,” she says. “You just look at them and think, ‘Is this kid the one who’s going to cure cancer? Is this the one who’ll travel to Mars?’ They are the future.”
And she wants them alive to enjoy it. —Jeannette Cooperman