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Seven-year-old Dusty Rawlings was part of the first group to participate in Duke's pilot program. His parents say they were referred there after they noticed a change in his behavior.
"In the morning he'd start crying and his tummy would hurt, so we talked to his counselors, teachers, and they led us to the pediatrician," said his mom Amy.
From there, they were referred to Nancy Zucker, MD with Duke Medicine. She's currently running an intervention program for children experiencing reoccurring stomach aches. The goal is to teach kids to learn the difference between various types of pain, such as hunger pains, gas pains, or even nerves.
"We use different characters to represent different body sensations like Samantha Sweat and Gassy Gus. And what we're hoping is that it just changes the way they relate to their bodies," Dr. Zucker explained.
The kids pretend to be FBI agents who are feeling and body investigators, and they learn to look for clues to determine which character best fits what they're feeling. It's something Dr. Zucker says will hopefully help long-term, too.
"Some studies have shown that early somatic symptoms, and that includes not only stomach aches but headaches, can be associated with the later development of depressive disorders and anxiety disorders," she went on to say.
And while researchers continue to study why that it is, this particular program is focused on easing that anxiety now, before it escalates. It's something that already seems to be helping Dusty.
"He can kind of put a finger on it, 'okay, it's not that bad, I'm just feeling a little anxious because I don't want to be away from mom and dad,'" his mom shared.
The program is free and open to kids ages 5-8 who experience one stomach ache per week every week for two months. Or those children who have severe stomach aches at least twice a month that require them to stay home from school.