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Classic Yacht Association provides breath of fresh air for families with ailing children

on October 20, 2015

“Arrrrrr!” growled seven-year-old Simon Fitch-Jenett, brandishing a foam sword while also sporting a buccaneer’s vest, striped shirt and three-cornered hat. He introduced himself as “Blackbeard,” and waited patiently for Susanne Di Lillo, a member of the North California Fleet of the Classic Yacht Association, to produce a boarding pass.

Patients and staff from UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland spent time Saturday morning on the San Francisco Bay aboard 10 historic yachts, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal yacht, the USS Potomac, as part of the Third Annual Kruzin’ 4 Kidz event. The energy of dozens of volunteers and the sponsorship of the Classic Yacht Association were behind the adventure.

“The Classic Yacht Association used to be a typical yacht club, where we would just get together ourselves. We thought that since we had all these beautiful boats, we should do something,” says founder and co-chair John Di Lillo, Susanne’s husband. “The key was getting the Potomac to join because it was one of the only disability-accessible boats.” The cruise commemorates the Di Lillo’s late daughter, Karin Mulloy, and another Classic Yacht Association member, Beverly Partridge. Mulloy was the one who had originally suggested partnering with the hospital, because her mother had worked in its Child Life Department.

The USS Potomac was originally commissioned as a Coast Guard cutter under the name Electra in 1934. It is best known for having belonged to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, as a survivor of polio, had it retrofitted to be wheelchair-accessible.

Since Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the ship has passed hands several times, including to Rock and Roll “King” Elvis Presley and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Founder Danny Thomas. At other times, it was used to run drugs between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and even did a stint below the surface of the waters surrounding Treasure Island. “The boat’s had quite the history! Since 1995, it’s been here in the Port of Oakland open to public tours,” said Diane Winkel, a docent, or historical guide, for the Potomac Association.

Captain Hugh James, who steered the Potomac last year, returned for another round. “It went marvelous! The kids enjoyed it, the people involved enjoyed it, and we made quite a showing on the bay, for anybody who was looking,” he said.

This year, hospital doctors, nurses and staff climbed aboard nine classic yachts, each over 50 years old, and followed their patients, who were aboard the Potomac, out onto the bay. The maritime parade left the Oakland Estuary and entered the San Francisco Bay, heading under the Bay Bridge and towards Alcatraz Island before turning to cruise along San Francisco’s bayfront.

The San Francisco Fire Department sent its fireboat out to greet the flotilla and spray jets of water high into the air, to the delight of young patients. Then the Potomac slowed to a stop and each of the nine classic ships pulled up alongside it, giving staff members a chance to salute the children.

Laura Fitch and Jaime Jenett, the parents of the 7-year-old pirate Simon, said they were grateful for a day on the water. Fitch said she recognizes the importance of having social experiences available to families with sick children. “If you’re that mom or that dad that is spending the night, and you’re doing it 100 nights in a row or longer, the hospital becomes a very lonely and isolating place,” she said.

As an infant, she said, Simon was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart condition, which required him to spend an extensive amount of time at Children’s Hospital Oakland. It’s hard to tell today, watching him run around with the energy of any other 7-year-old. “When my son was in the ICU for four months,” Fitch said, “one of the most important things was taking a break.”

One former patient, who had faced a life-threatening health situation at the hospital, said the seagoing adventure required of him a different kind of courage. “I have a phobia of the ocean,” said Juan Garcia, 19, who spent months in the hospital after receiving his diagnosis 6 years ago. “In 2009, all of a sudden, I just started to feel sick. I just thought it was a cold or a flu or something. It turned out, I had leukemia,” he said.

But despite his fear, Garcia said he was happy to join his family on the outing, which included his mother, Jacqueline, and sisters Saori, 3, and Sasha, 2. “I’m pretty much just here for my sisters. It’s something new for them, and for myself, too,” he said.

“It’s nice that the staff is with the children, so they get a chance to have some experiences together outside of the hospital, ” said hospital pharmacy director Patrick Fleming, who was also aboard one of the classic yachts.

“All these families, all they’ve known are hospitals and a lot of pain,” De Lillo said, as the cruise pulled back into the Port of Oakland. “We try to make them feel special and forget for a couple of hours.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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