Cancer survivors soar at bird park

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Connie Barfield, right, a 6-year colon cancer survivor, reacts to a parakeet landing on her phone as Phyllis Croom, a 6-year breast cancer survivor, reacts to parakeets landing on her hand, shoulder and head on Tuesday at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck. The Landing Zone at the park is a free-flight aviary in which parakeets will often land on the visitors.


By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

SCOTLAND NECK — A trip to Sylvan Heights Bird Park near Scotland Neck offers all who arrive a voyage of imagination, with the sights and sounds of birds from around the world carrying visitors to an other-worldly experience away from their daily grind.

For those whose daily grind involves cancer, Tuesday’s trip was just what the doctor ordered.

Dozens of cancer survivors and their caregivers spent the day at the bird park as guests of Vidant Health in honor of National Cancer Survivors Day, part of an ongoing Vidant program designed to promote the social aspects of healing and the benefits of a shared experience, said Jenny Higgins, a clinical psychotherapist and coordinator of Vidant Cancer Care Support and Survivorship program.

“Our intent is to incorporate specific thought processes into each experience,” Higgins said. “During the summer months, we usually talk about submerging ourselves in the presence of nature, the outdoors, using wildlife as a resource and coping method.”

Sylvan Heights Bird Park is designed to give visitors an up-close experience with over 2,000 waterfowl, parrots, toucans, flamingos and other exotic birds from around the world. The 18-acre facility features birds from South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The aviaries are surrounded by tranquil gardens and lush natural areas, which enhance the beauty of the birds on exhibit and immerse visitors in native North Carolina wildlife habitats.

Tuning into the sights, sounds and senses of the bird park’s natural environment is an especially valuable tool, Higgins said.

“When these resources are not readily available on a large scale like this, they can be found in our own environments — perhaps taking a walk in the park or having a cup of coffee and listening to the birds in our own backyards and tuning into the plants growing there,” she said. “It relies on a conscious decision to tune into the small meaningful things in life.”

That experience, known as mindfulness, can restore joy and satisfaction into lives that have been overburdened by stress — in this case, the stress of battling cancer.

“When cancer gets diagnosed, it becomes the focus of a person’s life; it’s almost debilitating,” Higgins said. “Through these experiences, we’re introducing ways for people to experience life in tangible and achievable ways.”

A Vidant survey taken after a recent wellness retreat that offered relaxation activities — including tai chi, yoga and music therapy — revealed that some patients who participate can reduce the use of pain medication for a day or two, Higgins said.

“They can tune into something deeper that evokes an emotional, spiritual and psychosocial response,” she said. “Vidant is interested in studying this more and collecting data to learn more about the benefits of the specific programs we offer. Some cancer centers around the world have told us our programs are unique and special.”

It was a special day for Brittany Barta, 55, of Ayden, a bone cancer survivor who struggles with chronic pain. 

“These trips give me the opportunity to meet and connect with people,” Barta said. “It gives me an opportunity to get out of my ‘safe spot.’

“I have limitations on my ability to get out and deal with my pain, and sometimes it’s easier just to be at home. But I’ve found that when I push myself out of my comfort zone and meet new people or participate in an activity I thought I couldn’t do, it empowers me and makes me feel a little stronger... more like the person I used to be before the cancer. When I take one of these trips, I often end up taking less pain medicine for a couple days because I’m distracted by the people I meet and the experience that engages me.”

Barta said that cancer changes lives, not usually for the better, and that alone is a daunting challenge.

“Being empowered to feel a little like your old self again motivates you,” she said. “I also do meditation, relaxation breathing, massage therapy and other techniques because the lower my stress level is, the less pain I have.”