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Superheroes and Firefighters

by Christopher Williams

When you ask any child 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 is especially true here in our community where handmade signs thanking firefighters and other first responders still line our streets and overpasses. 

Growing up in Santa Barbara, Tim Wright was one of those kids who dreamt of becoming a fireman. “Firefighting was just in his blood,” says his mother, Cathy Wright, as she recalls Tim’s reaction the first time the unmistakable sirens blared down their street to save a nearby home. 

Tim remembers that morning as well. He had stayed home from school that day 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 due to asthma than any other chronic disease. 

Despite his condition, Tim pleaded with his mother take him to the scene so that he could witness the brave men and women in action. Cathy obliged her young son because she knew that the complications of treating and managing his asthma did not dampen Tim’s spirit and determination to be active. Plus, she encouraged him to pursue his dreams as much as any child.

Since he was eighteen months old, Tim had been under the care of Dr. Myron Liebhaber at Sansum Clinic’s Allergy and Immunology Department and for the past five years he has been under the care of Dr. Jinny Chang. Dr. Liebhaber together with Dr. Chang and a specialized medical staff treat patients from childhood through adulthood for conditions including asthma, allergies, pulmonary disorders, cystic fibrosis and others.

The department recently relocated to expanded facilities at 51 Hitchcock Way in Santa Barbara. The newly renovated facility includes onsite X-rays, a state-of-the-art pulmonary laboratory and is conveniently adjacent to the Clinic’s Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine Department.

At age six, Tim enrolled in Camp Wheez, a free summer day camp for kids with asthma founded in 1978 by Dr. Liebhaber together with 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, medical professionals and trained community volunteers. Throughout its history, the camp has seen thousands of area kids run, jump, play and breathe easier 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,” says Tim. “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.”

Tim attended Camp Wheez for six consecutive summers where he continued to learn to better manage his asthma, build his confidence and abilities, and enjoy an active lifestyle. Tim 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.

Tim’s mother Cathy, meanwhile, spent ten 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.

While there were obstacles and those that would outright discourage Tim from becoming a firefighter because of his asthma, he would not be swayed. He attended Santa Barbara City College and then University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, before being selected by the U.S. Forest Service as an elite “hot shot” fighting wildfires in northern California. By his early 20s, it seemed, Tim had achieved his childhood aspiration.

Unfortunately, a failed lung test on non-standard equipment would interrupt Tim’s dream. 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 Tim and his doctors to navigate and meet the health requirements of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Once again, Tim 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 served on the front lines fighting fires in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. During the January 2018 mudslides in Montecito, Tim was part of a regional hazmat decontamination unit that was assigned to service the search and rescue teams including canine responders.

“I am proud to be able to do what I do,” he says. “But nothing would prepare me for the feeling I had while responding to the urgent needs of my own community on that scale.”

Tim 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.