Sami Strides for a Cure for Crohn’s Disease

by Maureen Gillum

Samantha Weis is a bright and beautiful 11-year-old girl who just started sixth grade at Hudson Memorial.  She loves movies, dancing, and theater; most recently she was in the Academy of Movement’s production of Peter Pan in Nashua, with her sister, Mandy, and Mom, Sue.  


Sami, left, and Sue Weis at Nottingham West’s fifth grade social last May. 

“My favorite movie this summer was definitely Pirates of the Caribbean II,” exuded Sami, “I love Jack Sparrow!”  She also adores reading, gymnastics, and all kind of animals, especially her personality-plus Westie Terrier, MacKenzie.  Most of all, Sami loves her family a ton:  Mom; Dad, George; Mandy, Nana in Massachusetts, and two sets of grandparents in New Mexico.  Like her mother, a substitute receptionist at Nottingham West and high-energy volunteer, Sami has a quick wit and a warm smile that lights up a room. 

Sami also happens to have Crohn’s disease; a chronic disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive or gastrointestinal tract.  It is a painful and embarrassing inflammatory bowel disease, closely related to ulcerative colitis, that can be especially harmful to children as it often presents severe growth failure.  Samantha is one of the 150,000 children (and 1.5 million adults) in the U. S. who suffers from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA, www.ccfa.org).  Despite its proliferation, it remains relatively unknown and misunderstood as too often ‘people don’t like to talk about IBDs.’

Ironically, other than her diminutive stature – the only hint of her serious medical condition – Sami Weis is the picture of health.  “She is just perfect,” shared her Mom proudly, “but at just 48 inches tall and 48 pounds, she’s a bit small for her age.”  Comparatively, she’s roughly a foot shorter and half the weight of most of her peers. 

Her diagnosis finally offered some relief, explanations, and hope.  After agonizing months of tests, several misdiagnoses, and much fear of the unknown, the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth finally diagnosed Sami with Crohn’s almost three years ago.  “We found out Thanksgiving 2003 and initially, we were devastated,” reflected Sue thoughtfully, “but we soon realized a positive attitude goes far in coping with Crohn’s and it’s something quite livable.”  

“I wasn’t really scared,” Sami confided matter-of-factly, “I was actually feeling pretty bad ‘cause I was flaring and I was just glad they found a diagnosis so I could get some help.”  Mom also added, “Dr. Edwards and the CHAD staff were absolutely wonderful!”  

To date, Sam’s treatments have included drugs, like Prednisone, 6-MP, Biaxin, Methotrexate and Remicade (an IV infusion); along with several bouts with a feeding tube via her nose.  “She can really get on my nerves sometimes,” sighed big sister, Mandy, 13, “but she is also ultra-cool because she’s so strong and brave; with all the stuff she’s gone through, she’s never scared.”  Though often in pain and currently taking liquid meals through a gastroenterological tube surgically implanted in her stomach recently, her indomitable spirit makes her illness largely imperceptible. 

Early on, the Weis’s also learned self-advocacy was key to improving life for Sami and for other kids struggling with IBD.  “After the initial shock, we started digging into the research and putting together our best strategic plan,” shared her dad, a software engineer for Savings Bank Life Insurance.  The strong medical back ground both were brought up with – Sue’s dad as a cardiologist; Sue and George’s moms as nurses – really helped.  “Getting information and advocating for yourself offers power and hope,” shared Sue, “while ignorance and apathy just builds fear and negativity.” 

As a family, they joined CCFA and found it a wealth of knowledge and support.  Last fall, they did the local CCFA walk-a-thon and were among the top New Hampshire fundraisers.  This year, with the help of many friends, the family is forming a team, “Sami’s Striders,” who will be “Striding toward a Cure for Crohn’s” on Saturday, September 16 in Manchester.  They hope to take the lead in raising funds and awareness for IBD.  Some extraordinary efforts have been made on behalf of Sami’s Striders from some great friends at Penuche’s Pub and The Peddler’s Daughter in Nashua.  “We’re excited about the walk this year,” reported the Weis girls grinning, “Our team is growing every day!”  “This is our year to really make an impact,” Sue radiated passionately; “We’re very grateful for all the love, generosity, and support from our community.” 

Additional walkers and contributions to Sami’s Striders for the CCFA’s 2006 5K Guts and Glory walk in New Hampshire are welcome.  Visit www.ccfa.org for more information, call Sue at 598-4167, or mail your check (made out to “CCFA”) to the Weis’ at 24 Nathaniel Drive, NH 03051.  Another way to support this great cause is to drop by 24 Nathaniel Drive this Saturday (9/9, 9L00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) for a major yard sale to benefit Sami’s Striders. 

The emotional and social impact to Crohn’s can also be overwhelming, especially to kids.  Sami attended a special CCFA-sponsored Crohn’s Camp for Kids, called Camp Oasis, in Elizaville, New York, in late August.  “At home there aren’t a lot of kids like me and I feel kind of different and lonely sometimes,” Sami admitted earnestly, “but all the kids and counselors at my summer camp had Crohn’s.  I realized I’m not alone and I felt like family!”  Going through stacks of camp pictures, Sami claimed she had “the time of her life” and is excited to go back next year.  “Camp Oasis was an absolute God Send,” shared Sue, “there was an instant and very special bond among those kids.”

The Weis’s also admit there are still some days they feel overwhelmed.  “Thankfully, we have each other to maintain balance,” explained George, “when I was down, Sue would pull me, up and vice-versa.”  A cradle Episcopalian, Sue humbly added, “I guess that’s God’s way of giving us help and strength.”  Giving her parents and others strength is also little Sami, who demonstrates courage in her struggle against Crohn’s and vigor in her daily life that far exceeds most everyone. 

While research advances, the causes and cure of Crohn’s is unknown.  Most researchers believe it involves a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors along with an abnormal immune system.  Increasingly more suspect an outside agent, like a virus or bacterium, may trigger, or accelerate the disease.  Crohn’s symptoms (persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, rectal bleeding, fatigue) and complications (intestinal blockage, ulcers, fissures, malnutrition, emotional stress) range from mild to severe, as people go in and out of ‘active flare-ups’ and periods of temporary remission.  

The key goal of medical treatment today for Crohn’s is to suppress the intestinal inflammation so that tissue can heal and relieve the primary symptoms.  Several groups of drugs are used including anti-inflammatories (5-ASA); corticosteroids (Prednisone); immune modifiers (6-MP); antibiotics and newer biologic therapies, like Remicade.  When medications fail, one or more surgeries, like resective bowel surgery (anastomosis) or an ileostomy (removal of colon, attach waste pouch) may be required.  Up to three-quarters of patients with Crohn's disease will require surgery at some point during their lives.  While surgery can’t cure Crohn’s, it may offer some months or years of remission. 

Fortunately, with proper treatment, most people with Crohn’s disease lead normal and productive lives.  Determined to do so, Samantha Weis smiles bravely with a shrug, “I try to not let Crohn’s get in the way of my life too much.”


Sami


Editor’s note:  In another of Hudson~Litchfield News’ exclusive, ‘Hudson History Unrolled’ series, explore one of Hudson’s darkest moments … and finest glories, along with revelations and reflections from Alvirne staff, students, parents and town leaders past and present, who lived it.  Special thanks also to the Hudson Historical Society for their help on this story and its vast knowledge and dedication to fostering Hudson’s town history. 

Hudson History Unrolled:  The Burning and Rebirth of Alvirne High School

by Maureen Gillum

Thirty-two years ago today -- in the pre-dawn hours of a quiet Sunday morning just two days after the fall quarter of school started on September 8, 1974 – a tragedy struck Hudson, New Hampshire, that many current residents know little about. 

A “fierce, fast fire” consumed about 80 percent of Alvirne High School, causing nearly $5 million in damage and displacing nearly 1,200 students.  Remarkably, the school was rebuilt and in session, a year and one day after the devastating fire, through the massive collaboration of the Hudson community.  

The Alvirne High School fire call was officially logged at the Hudson Fire Station on Sunday, September 8, 1974 at 5:32 am.  At that time, present-day Deputy Fire Chief, Gary Rodgers, “was an Alvirne student and junior firefighter in-training” who “kept very busy refilling tanks at the 1974 Alvirne fire.”  Gary and other young firefighters were also busy learning from early mentors, like Hudson’s first permanent Fire Chief, Frank Nutting, also considered “Hudson’s eternal sixth selectman” because of his respected town insights and his 21-year tenure as a Hudson Selectman. 

Former Hudson Fire Chief, Frank Nutting, Jr., recalled, “(Selectman) Stanley Alukonis just happened to be driving by very early in the morning and called it in; he couldn’t believe the fire had gotten that far without anyone else noticing it.”  Stanley’s son, David Alukonis (AHS Class of 1979), Hudson’s current School Board Chairman, remembered, “My father, was the first to see the fire as he was putting up political campaign signs along Derry Road in the early hours.”  David detailed, his dad raced back to the fire station, pulled the alarm there, and waited for the first call firefighters.  

Among the first responders were then Hudson’s Deputy Fire Chiefs, Robert Buxton and Robert Campbell, “who found the gymnasium-auditorium, the center section and cupola totally engulfed in flames,” according to Nutting.  The chief, who was out of town at the fire’s onset but sped to AHS shortly after, gave “full credit” to his deputies and crew who “did a fine job managing the roaring inferno.”  A secondary inside legend, is how “Chief Nutting made it driving his Cadillac with a 501, from Wells Beach, Maine, to the Alvirne fire in less than 45 minutes,” shared Shawn Jasper admiringly, an AHS sophomore in 1974 who also served as a call firefighter for years.

Thanks to the fire mutual aid plan, within minutes, more than a dozen pieces of fire apparatus and crews were drawn from Hudson, Nashua, Pelham, Salem, Litchfield, Derry, East Derry and Londonderry.  With no town water supply, fire units drained the 23,000 gallon cistern and farm pond at Alvirne.  They also laid more than a mile of hose to the closest hydrant (near Alvirne Chapel) and shuttled water.  Though up to 200 firemen valiantly battled the flames for more than five hours, the ravages of the fire became agonizingly clear in dawn’s early light -- Alvirne was nearly gone. 

 “It was by far the biggest fire we ever battled in Hudson,” recounted Nutting, who served Hudson’s Fire Department for 40 years, 12 (1972 - 1984) as its chief.  In addition to the challenges firemen faced due to the lack or inaccessibility of water – which is still an issue in Hudson’s north end, as later detailed – another concern exacerbated the fire.  “The real problem was Alvirne had no fire stops (brick barriers) in the original attic,” cited Nutting, “which enabled the fire to just roar through the school.”

The fire codes and standards of the mid-1970s – then in their infancy stages as compared to today – also gave the fire teams a lot more challenge.  “As many observed, the collective efforts of the fire departments at the 1974 Alvirne fire were nothing short of heroic,” assessed current Hudson Fire Chief, Shawn Murray.  “Like many schools of that time, Alvirne had no real fire detection or protection of fire sprinkler systems that are now required and mandatory.”  Thankfully, no was killed or seriously injured. 

 “It’s all still very clear in my mind,” recalled longtime Hudson resident and former School Superintendent, Peter Dolloff, taking a break from his Cape vacation.  “I was fast asleep when I got the early morning phone call, which I initially thought was a crank.”  Dolloff sleepily hopped into his car and knew when he hit the police road block on Route 102 that something was very wrong.  “It was a remarkable sight to see the flames from Alvirne leaping way up in the air; the gym was totally obliterated,” added Dolloff, who led the SAU 27 District (Hudson and Litchfield, prior to 7/03) for 26 years, “It was the largest school fire in the history of New Hampshire.” 

The Alvirne fire of 1974 was an event that many longtime residents somberly remember.  “The sound of the fire horn woke me early that morning as it was blasting non-stop,” reflected Dave Alukonis.  He noted the fire horn is the same Hudson still hears at 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. today.  Back then, it sounded for every fire, and the number and sequence of the horn’s blasts determined the size and location of each fire.  “I have never before or since seen flames as high and large as those at Alvirne High School,” described Alukonis.  “In the glow of the fire and early morning light, I could see the steel beams that had supported the school’s upper stories were twisted, bent and drooping like spaghetti.”  He added, “If you know where to look you can still see the shadow of the big white “#1” (for AHS Boys’ State Soccer Championship of 1973) that had been painted on the south wall of the school shortly before the fire.” 

As major roads were blocked off that morning, “It seemed the whole town just walked miles and miles to go see the school,” life-long Hudson resident of Bush Hill, Esther McGraw, recollected, “most everyone was quiet and just kept walking.”  It was a long, silent, collective walk of mourning for the impressive school.  AHS originally opened in September, 1950; its start largely due to one of Hudson’s benevolent forefathers, Dr. Alfred K. Hills.  Since Pelham (until 1973) and Litchfield (until 2000) also attended AHS, and selected students interested in Alvirne’s Agricultural - Vocational program were tuitioned in from surrounding towns, the loss of the school was felt throughout the region. 

After considerable investigation by the fire marshal’s office, Chief Nutting, announced the fire had deliberately been set.  “They found streaks of accelerants on lockers in the basement,” reported Dolloff, “but it’s remained a mystery to this day who the arsonist was.” 

However, former Chief, Frank Nutting, shed some light on this old Hudson mystery recently.  “We actually put it all together with the police and we found the guy about six months after the fire,” shared Nutting, 32 years later.  “It was a troubled young man, originally from Hudson, who was apparently having problems with one of Alvirne’s teachers; the fire was his revenge.”  Though still unwilling to name the alleged arsonist, Frank did reveal that “he was already serving a 10-year prison term in Massachusetts.”  Further, he shared that the 1974 State Fire Marshal (George O’Dell), recommended that Hudson “just drop it,” to save much expense and aggravation, since little, if any, recourse would be possible after a decade of the young man’s incarceration.

While the 1974 fire was by far the biggest, it was not the only blaze that challenged Alvirne.  The large, 100-year-old Alvirne barn was heavily damaged by a fire in late March 1993, a year after the Palmer Vocational Center was opened.  “I had to help the preschoolers cope with the barn fire and the animals,” explained Pam Prophet, an Early Childhood Ed Teacher at AHS.  Fortunately, the cattle barn and milking operations were saved due to the quick actions of the Hudson Fire Department.


Conducting Sobriety Checkpoints can be Effective Deterrent

by Doug Robinson

“I will do everything I can to get drunk drivers off the road,” stated Chief Richard Gendron in speaking to the Hudson Selectmen.

On two consecutive nights, September 1 and September 2, the Hudson Police Department conducted two sobriety checkpoints, from 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. each.  These checkpoints were conducted on Lowell Road in accordance with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s guidelines for sobriety checkpoints.

The checkpoints were staffed by Hudson police officers in addition to several New Hampshire State Police Troopers.  The cost for this event was offset 100 percent by a $3.690.72 grant from the State of New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency for the Hudson Regional Sobriety Checkpoints Project.

“I believe one of the most effective ways to deter and identify impaired driving in the Town of Hudson is through a sobriety checkpoint,” stated Gendron.  “The last time we operated a DWI checkpoint was in 2002.”  The national average for impaired driving is one out of four drivers during the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. during the weekend nights.

The towns of Nashua, Pelham, and Salem also participated with sobriety checkpoints along with Hudson.

During 2005, the Town of Hudson had 198 DWI arrests.  During 2006, the Hudson Police Department has arrested 141 for DWI in the first six months of the years.  “Nationwide, research shows that most fatalities occur Friday and Saturday during the evening hours,” commented Gendron.  “Two of the three fatalities during last year were alcohol related.”

The objectives of the sobriety checkpoints were:

  • Accurate identification of impaired motorists;
  • Minimization of motorist surprise, apprehension, and inconvenience;
  • Safety of motorists and participating officers; and
  • Achieving maximum deterrent effect through aggressive public information efforts.

The checkpoints were set up to permit safe direction of traffic as well as maximize the screening processes conducted by the police.  The “rule of thumb” was one-minute stops for each vehicle.  Vehicles were present to pursue those vehicles who attempt to evade the checkpoint.  If traffic became too heavy, every 2nd or 3rd vehicle was stopped.

During the vehicle stops, officers were also checking for violations of the safety restraint laws, underage drinking, drugs, and other motor vehicles violations.  Police dogs were also present for the purpose of assisting officers with the apprehension of illegal drugs coming into Hudson.

“Incidence of alcohol involvement in roadway crashes has been well documented by the Hudson Police Department.  Alcohol is a contributing factor in motor vehicle crashes and remains prominent which is evident in a high percentage of serious motor vehicle crashes.  As we all know the consumption of alcoholic beverages and driving a motor vehicle can have tragic consequences” stated Chief Gendron.

The results for the two nights of sobriety checks were as follows:

  • Cars stopped:  208 (Friday), 193 (Saturday)
  • DWI arrests:  6
  • Marijuana arrests:  3
  • Cocaine arrest:  1
  • Outstanding warrant arrest:  1
  • Driving without valid license arrest:  1
  • Citation for open container:  1
  • Citation for motorcycle helmet violation:  1
  • Seat beat violation:  1

Cars entering into the sobriety checkpoint were directed to a separate traffic lane and then asked to stop, where a police officer would identify himself, explain the purpose of the traffic stop, and then proceed to ask for the driver’s license and registration.  While this was occurring, two other police officers would be visually inspecting the vehicle with flashlight, looking for any “telltale” signs of alcohol or drug abuse.”

Inspection stickers were validated, courtesy conversations occurred, and most of the drivers proceeded through the checkpoint in less than one minute.  All vehicles were required to proceed through the checkpoint, including a Nashua Police Officer, going home as his shift had just ended.  One of Hudson’s newspaper carriers also passed through the checkpoint as she proceeded to drive off toward her paper route.

Other drivers, however, were asked to “step out of the vehicle” and take a “field sobriety” exam for many reasons.  One vehicle approached and entered the checkpoint and bag marijuana could be seen resting comfortably, and in the open, on the front seat of the vehicle.  Another vehicle, upon approaching the checkpoint had open beer cans as well as “empties” lying on the floor of the vehicle.  The passenger of this vehicle attempted to hide an open beer can in his right coat pocket of his suit coat.  The driver of another vehicle had forgotten to snuff out his “half-pipe” of marijuana, and the pipe was still smoking within the storage area of the two front seats of his vehicle.

Upon completion of the field sobriety exam, each one of the drivers awaited their fate:  “You are free to go,” or, “You are under arrest for DWI (driving under the influence).”  Motor vehicle operators who are found to be DWI are considered to be “impaired.”


Hudson K-9 Akim with Hudson officer Kevin Sullivan locates the drug cocaine in the trunk of a car stopped at the sobriety road block.

“Impaired,” according to the State Police, is the key word in the sobriety checkpoint investigations.  As each motor vehicle operator accepted their fate and performed the six different and individual exercises to evaluate their operator’s influence behind the wheel, some passed and proceeded along their way, while others did not receive the passing grade required.  Under New Hampshire Law, a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher, is considered to be “impaired” and the motor vehicle operate is considered to be “Driving Under the Influence.”

“Walk the line,” follow the pen with your eyes,” “stand on one foot with you head tilted back” are well know phrases to everyone who drives a motor vehicle.  However, these are only three of the many exercises the police may ask of any driver who is believed to be “under the influence” and “impaired.”

As operators of motor vehicles were asked to perform these examinations, young children could be heard screaming from the open windows of their vehicle, “Don’t arrest my daddy, please don’t arrest my daddy.”  As this impaired driver staggered, swayed, and failed to follow the instructions of the police officer, other officers became compassionate to the children and offered words of encouragement to them.  Daddy, however, was charged with not only DWI, but he was also charged with the offense called an “enhanced penalty.”  When the motor vehicle operator has children under the age of 16 in the vehicle with him, and it is determined that the operator is “impaired” while he was driving”, then that operator is charged with and “enhanced penalty” and the consequences become greater.

Every motor vehicle operator who “walked the line” or stood one foot” was offered the opportunity of “blow” into a device which would register their blood alcohol content.  While some agreed to “blow” others bluntly refused.  Those who “blew” accepted their fate; however it transpired, while those who refused accepted the consequences.  Their voluntary refusal to “blow” would result in the loss of their motor vehicle license for a period of six months.

“She was less drunk than me,” commented the intoxicated passenger of another vehicle.  “We talked about it and thought it best if she drove because she drank less than me.  I am waiting for a cab to take me home.  I am going to thank the officer for teaching me a valuable lesson.”  (By the way, he left the checkpoint without thanking anyone.)

“I’m not drunk, I‘m doing nothing wrong, I answered all your questions” stated the swaggering young female, driving home from a wedding.  “I refuse to take the breathalyzer test.  What will happen again?”

Meanwhile, “Sir, is that marijuana on that seat there?” asked the state police officer.  “Yes,” stated the driver.  “Is it yours?” inquired the officer.  “No, it belongs to a friend who was drunk and I drove him home tonight.  It is not mine.”  “You know,” stated the state police officer, “I do believe you, and you are under arrest for possession of marijuana.  Next time, tell your friend to take his marijuana with him.”

While Selectman Kathleen MacLean stated that the chief’s actions were “un-American” and Chairman Richard Maddox stated that he would vote against the chief’s actions, Selectman Shawn Jasper reminded everyone that “drunk drivers kill and that more people were killed by drunk drivers than were killed in the Vietnam war, and that the Chief has his full support.”

The Hudson Police Department circulated “Sobriety Checkpoint Motorist Surveys” to every motor vehicle which passed through the checkpoint.  Those motorists who returned the survey as well as many who proceeded through the checkpoint said they appreciate the efforts of the Hudson Police Department.  “I do not like being stopped, but, I guess if this is what you have to do to get the drunks off the road, it is ok with me,” responded one motorist who went through the checkpoint.

“The checkpoints were a huge success,” stated Captain Donald Breault, Hudson Police Department.  “The success of the checkpoints can be evaluated on several levels.  The four areas of Southern New Hampshire arrested 24 impaired drivers and took them off the roads.  The great job done by the media got the word out and driving habits were changed, at least for the weekend.  Not a single alcohol related accident was reported during the weekend in Hudson.  According to John Clegg, New Hampshire Highway Safety, the State of New Hampshire did not have one fatality during the holiday weekend.

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