Carrie Heaphy counts herself lucky.

Someone else, perhaps someone of the glass-half-empty variety, might feel unlucky, but not Heaphy.

Yes, her third-grader, the effervescent Luke, has a form of childhood rheumatoid arthritis. And yes, he makes regular visits to a doctor and is dependent on medication.

Still, Carrie Heaphy beams as she watches her 8-year-old son run down the hall of Community Medical Center's pediatric specialty clinic.

"Without Community and Seattle Children's, without Dr. Peggy, and without all the changes in treatments for kids like Luke, we might not feel the way we do," said Carrie. "But look at him. He's a bundle of energy. He plays just about every sport he can."

That he does. On a recent visit to see Dr. Peggy Schlesinger, the state's only pediatric rheumatologist, Luke was on break from football camp at the University of Montana and had just finished competing in a three-on-three basketball tournament.

Luke's opportunity to take part in a full spectrum of sports comes in no small part because of Community's pediatric specialty clinic program.

The program, which runs 14 separate clinics that deal with a variety of childhood illnesses, pairs treatment providers in Missoula with doctors from around the region, primarily Seattle Children's Hospital.

"Because of our agreement with Seattle, we are able to provide treatment here in Missoula that children and their parents would likely have to travel hours to get," said Community's Kim McKearnan, director of pediatrics. "That means a lot less travel, a lot less expense, and a lot less stress for both kids and their families."

It also means parents like Carrie and Ike Heaphy can feel lucky in the face of stiff odds.

"If we had to go out of town for all the visits we've needed for Luke, I'm not sure how we would have survived it," said Carrie Heaphy. "This has really been a lifesaver for our family."

***

The specialty clinic program has been in place for about two years, McKearnan said.

"With a lot of childhood diseases, there are certainly cases of them here in western Montana, but there aren't necessarily enough of them to support a doctor's practice," she said. "So what we've done is created a partnership where doctors come in for clinics at different intervals over the course of the year."

The frequency of those intervals is disease-specific. Some run every month, while a clinic like pediatric neurology is held only several times a year.

"We could have that more, but that's about all the doctors we can get," McKearnan said.

Some of the doctors who work in the clinics are actually employed by Seattle Children's but live in Missoula. That's the case with Schlesinger, who has been working in Montana since 1983.

"Peggy basically sees the whole state, plus she travels back and forth to Seattle from time to time," said McKearnan. "She just hasn't learned how to say no."

In all, 22 doctors are involved, including some from as far away as Denver. And they treat conditions ranging from metabolic diseases to epilepsy.

"The demand has really been growing for these clinics, and it's really only limited by the staff we can get," McKearnan said. "We're constantly looking at ways to provide additional services."

***

Luke Heaphy's arthritis emerged early.

"At 18 months, he was having trouble walking," his mother said. "He did have an ear infection at the time and we thought that might be affecting him. But it cleared up and the walking didn't improve."

The Heaphys lived for a while without a diagnosis, but once one was made, the family began a long, fruitful relationship with Schlesinger.

"She's been a gift to our family," Carrie Heaphy said. "She's always been there for us and I can't really imagine our life without her."

Schlesinger modestly says life has improved vastly for kids with arthritis because of advances in medication.

"Earlier diagnosis and better treatment is the reason we're doing so much better with these kids today," said Schlesinger, who also runs a yearly camp for arthritic kids at Camp Mak-A-Dream. "Changes in medication have made life much more full for kids like Luke."

So, of course, have doctors like Schlesinger.

"I do think we have better outcomes with a program like this, because the travel is really a hardship, for both the kids and their folks," she said. "Here, we really have a chance to build relationships with the kids, and that does play a role in how they respond."

That was evident recently as Schlesinger checked Luke out thoroughly as he moved through a series of maneuvers designed to assess his range of movement.

"You are looking very good, Luke," the doctor told her young patient.

"I feel good," he said with a smile.

Good enough for football, basketball, soccer and anything else that comes his way.

And that's good enough for his mother.

"For us, this entire experience has been a blessing," Carrie Heaphy said. "We feel so lucky."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

 

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