Remembering How To Play: My Summer With Some Incredible Kids
by Elizabeth Martin
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Year in Medical School: 2nd
Place of birth:
Wake Forest University
Major(s) in College: Violin Performance, Chemistry minor
Trying to be the typical over-studious medical student, I envisioned myself spending the summer after first year in an oncology lab doing Western blots, counting cells, writing magnificent papers, and helping to cure cancer. After summer plans A, B, and C disintegrated, I dusted off plan D and found myself instead smoothing grout on mosaics with hands blue from tie-dye, my major concern being whether marshmallow fluff will work to hold a popcorn castle together. I spent this summer of 2011 as the arts and cooking activity staff at Camp Boggy Creek, a camp for sick kids in Florida. Let me try to convey to you a small glimpse of this incredible experience that only intensified my desire to be a doctor so that perhaps one day I can come back and serve at a place like this.
Molly* is a frail 16 year old on oxygen 24/7 living in constant fear of others discovering the fact she has a G-tube. Ed has chest scars from his open heart surgery and keeps his shirt on at pool parties to avoid the questions and stares. Natalie has JRA and uses a walker sometimes. While she has tried to get used to the comments, she still feels the sting when other kids say things like “my grandma has that” and accuse her of faking her illness to get out of activities. Heart-wrenching irony unjustly sets the bravest of kids at the receiving end of jokes and at the fringe of the social scene. Frustrated with themselves for something they cannot control, they exert all their energy to hide their condition so they can just appear “normal.”
Hidden amidst dozens of horse farms and the Seminole State Forest in Cassia, Florida rests the beautiful safe-haven of Camp Boggy Creek. This unique place is part of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp association (as is the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, NC) and provides the medical facilities and staff necessary to allow sick kids to experience a week of summer camp with other kids who have a similar medical condition. Kids with epilepsy get to ride horses, children who live in wheelchairs get hoisted to the top of a 42 foot tall tower, kids with bleeding disorders don’t have to sit out because all activities are designed to include everyone and keep them safe, kids on chemotherapy get onstage and sing in the spotlight without hats or wigs. At Camp Boggy Creek, sick kids get to just be kids.
Donations pour in and are expertly channeled into meeting all of the needs of camp so that kids can attend for free. Doctors and nurses give up their vacation time to come with their patients and serve in the Patch (the medical facility). Camp director Dorcas Tomasek has created an amazing camp atmosphere with the goal of creating a “home away from home” that envelops the kids into a week of unforgettable fun and friend-making. Her expert guidance constructed a solid group group of staff members prepared to maintain the excitement, preparation, and dedication necessary to see that every one of the 140ish kids each week feels “safe, respected, and loved” (the camp motto).
With crazy camp themes (including visits from the “rival camp” Mossy Brook), a dining hall constantly resounding with cheers, and events such as the Silly Olympics (think spaghetti slip-n-slide), the fun that happens at this camp rivals that of any healthy kid camp. We just have nurses and doctors milling around, take meds together at meals, and are ready and expecting to respond to hemophilia bleeds, sickle cell crises and seizures.
As a 2011 summer activity staff member, I was in charge of the arts and crafts and cooking activities. From animal-shaped chocolate chip pancakes and mini breakfast quiches to rice krispie lizards, cake decorating contests and the occasional iron chef, we had a lot of fun (and sugar!) in the kitchen. Clay pots and suncatchers and tie-dye shirts in arts and crafts sent each kid home with a project to remember their days at camp. From hitting juice cartons at archery and catching the legendary “Sourpuss” at fishing to petting alpacas and painting(!) or riding horses in the barn, Camp Boggy Creek has the staff and facilities necessary to allow these children to safely enjoy the activities that make summer camp such a special place.
Some kids have spent most of their life in a hospital. Others are extremely sheltered, from homes where parents cut their meat and choose their clothes in an understandable effort to somehow make life easier for their kid. Some are HIV positive and live with foster families or are adopted, estranged from their family because of their developmental delay. This camp is about empowering the campers-helping them realize they can safely cut their own meat, they can flip a pancake, they can help someone else feel good by giving them a “builder statement.” Kids can write in the “book of firsts” and have it announced that they kissed a fish for the very first time. They can sing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” in the spotlight in a beautiful costume for all their friends at stage day. They can speak into the microphone during the web of kindness and publicly thank someone for helping them or have the awesome feeling of starting a cheer and having the entire dining hall join in with them. The oldest campers can conquer the tower and realize how much influence they can have as they hang out with their youngest camper buddy who wants nothing more than to be just like them.
And of course the power of this place touches not only the campers.
As humans we all struggle with this ever-present tug of self-centeredness. We tend to think, especially in a career-driven place like medical school, that if I just achieve this certain goal or get this certain thing for myself then I will be happy. The power of a place like Boggy Creek rests in this strange but beautiful realization that once you lift your eyes off yourself and throw your entire being into giving a group of kids the best week of their life- this is when you feel a pure sense of joy unlike anything else you could ever get from doing something for yourself.
I wish I could share with you the smile of Natalie when she shared her frustrations about people’s comments on her arthritis and got a “me too” and a similar story from a cabin-mate who also felt ostracized. Or the moment when Mr. Spivey, the legendary 100 year old camp neighbor who treks from across the lake to share wisdom, shared with eager heart week campers that their scars are actually badges of courage. I wish I could share with you the smile on Molly’s face as she and her oxygen mask made it to the top of the tower in a harness hoisted by ropes pulled by her cabin-mates, the moment in the cabin that night where she pulled up her shirt and showed the girls her G-tube, explaining how she had to change schools last year because the kids found out about it and she lost all her friends.
Pure moments such as these are infinitely precious- these moments of inexplicable joy when you see kids feeling so loved and accepted that they start to become comfortable with who they are. While at home they are “that sick kid,” at Camp Boggy Creek they can just have fun with other kids who understand. When it is time for the sad goodbyes, the can leave empowered to go back home with confidence after a week of realizing they are beautiful children who indeed deserve to feel safe, respected, and loved.
So I have yet to spend time in a lab, and I still have no idea how to do a Western blot…but I did get to play with some awesome kids over eight intense weeks that were definitely life-changing. This summer I played with them as someone else’s patients. One day though, I will have patients of my own. Maybe they will be like these campers (this summer has moved pediatrics up on the list!). May I then look back to the smiles and silliness of this summer to remind me that inside that sick patient with the complicated disease is a kid who just wants to play.
*names have been changed to protect patient confidentiality
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