“I’ve heard it said that you can leave camp, but camp never really leaves you.”
Camp Korey’s summer season ended just last week. With it also ended my tenure leading their medical program. It has been a truly bittersweet ending, as I will miss the long hard days of making kids laugh into the evening, while also ensuring they receive the safe medical care they need. But having small children and running a time and emotionally-intensive summer medical program is untenable for me at this moment in my life.
My time at camp will forever have a very special place in my heart, as will all of the friends I have made along the way. I am a better doctor and a more compassionate human being for spending my summers there. I also learned a few things that I will never forget.
1. Put away your ‘cool’ card
You know, that thing in your back pocket that tells you not to be silly? I know, we all want to ‘not look stupid,’ and make sure that we are ‘mature’ with our doctor title, but camp is the place to let it go. To not worry what other people think. There is too much judgement in society.
The kids at camp are suffocating from judgment, they are the kids who are different, and all they want is to be themselves and be accepted. It is not surprising that children model how adults behave. So at camp, it is vitally important for us to wear funny hats, cheer as loud as we can, and dance as if no one is watching. At camp, no one cares whether you can dance… what matters is that you are dancing, having fun, singing and throwing spaghetti during Silly-O (a massive food fight).
2. Everyone needs a place that feels like home
Remember the theme song to Cheers, “You wanna be where everybody knows your name…?”
Most of the kids that come to camp don’t have places that feel safe to them. As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of judgement in the world. If you are a child that looks different, needs frequent medications, or spends a lot of time in the hospital, life can be extremely challenging.
For these kids, it is very hard to have friends, to have “play dates,’ to go to birthday parties or sleep-overs. At camp, the medical team makes sure ALL the camper’s medical needs are taken care of, and taken care of in the background. So there is no anxiety about ‘how will I get my medicine?’ Or, ‘what if someone sees my scar?’ Every child at camp has something that brought them to camp, so it becomes this harmonious place where children feel accepted in a way they haven’t outside of their home. It is often life changing for them.
3. People desire to be in community with one another
The word community can mean different things for different people, but I feel as though it is being a member of a group that really appreciates my presence, and one that I choose to go back to. It is a group of people who I care deeply about, that cares about me as well.
Every camp season required the recruitment of 50-80 volunteer nurses and 15-20 volunteer physicians. Our volunteers came from all different aspects of medicine, I had NICU nurses and adult critical care nurses, I had orthopedic surgeons and dermatologists.
Once at camp, our identities and our white coats or our scrub tops get stripped away and replaced with camp T-shirts and funny hats. It felt almost like college, where we lived together, worked, and shared all of our meals together. In this environment, we developed relationships that were impossible within the confines of the hospital walls.
We were a family, pouring hundreds of medications each Monday, working late into the evening each day and becoming friends. These awesome professionals donated their time and usually would take vacation to come to camp. Every single year. These people chose this community, and they also choose to return. I know these individuals better than I know my colleagues, because you learn a lot about someone when you spend a week with them. I consider these friends to be life-long because we shared such wonderful, challenging and inspiring times, and I also believe they are the gems of the medical profession. I adore each and every one of these people.
There was always so much hard work and integrity demonstrated by the medical teams. I knew that I could promise families we would take the best care of their children during each session because I always had fantastic volunteers who were the ultimate compassionate professionals. With silly hats.
4. The counselors that spend their summer creating camp experiences for ill children are the best people
This is the genuine truth. At Camp Korey, there are actually college students that do this and they get paid very little doing so. Our counselors would work about 80 hrs/week, only getting Saturdays off, for 8 weeks.
Their jobs not only involve being big siblings to our campers, but making sure everyone is having fun and no one is being bullied. They are responsible for ensuring our campers get showers and have assistance toileting (if they need help) and have sunscreen applied EVERY DAY.
They learn about all of the medical conditions prior to each session, so they understand what to expect. We have campers with massive food allergies, and our counselors were responsible for ensuring all of the kids with special diets only got “their” food. Which is really hard when everyone else eats ‘family style!’ They carry epi pens and inhalers in their backpacks for the kids that might need it during the daily activities. They plan “sneak-outs’ for the older campers, so they get to experience a little bit of delinquency.
Every night, they have “cabin chat” to talk to their campers, process the days’ events and teach the campers about lifting one another up and giving each-other warm fuzzies. I don’t think I could have been a counselor when I was their age. But, I feel lucky to have been able to witness such unadulterated compassion by such young souls. Watching the counselors be such admirable human beings makes one have faith in society.
They are heroes, and some of the nicest people you have ever met
5. We all do better when mealtimes take priority
I lived forever in the field of medicine, where you are lucky if you eat. I currently work in an emergency department, where I am still lucky if I get a moment to shove something into my face. At camp—everything stops for mealtimes, three times a day! Our entire schedule is based around our meals. Even if there is a sick camper, someone on the medical team brings food to the medical center to ensure those on duty get fed.
We all need to eat, and we especially need to prioritize eating during an active summer camp with kids who are medically fragile. I learned that I need to eat, too. I learned that my ability to take care of others is way better when I am taking care of myself first. I also learned that it helps to have a bunch of your friends standing by, caring about you and making sure you get fed.
6. If you spend your time giving away warm fuzzies, you will feel the warmest in return
A big part of camp is giving away warm fuzzies to our friends at camp. Each camper, volunteer, and staff member has a paper bag with their name on it. Throughout the week, we write little notes to each other, congratulating a camper for being brave by climbing the rock wall or thanking a volunteer for calling a parent or trouble-shooting a g-tube.
This translates to living in a space of gratitude and the act of constantly trying to find something to thank someone for. It is a very rich way to live. I found that my perspective changed, and instead of being concerned about what was not going well for me, I was constantly celebrating our wins as a team. We should all be giving each other warm fuzzies on the daily.
7. Taking care of a bunch of children doing things they never have done before is incredibly inspiring
I loved seeing these super courageous children take risks. Just attending camp is scary. Then these kids get here and make friends and climb really tall walls and dance and eat strange food. It must be terrifying for them. At the end of the week they would then get on a stage and show off their talents. It was always beautiful and always inspiring. I learned a lot about courage watching campers overcome their fears.
I was lucky to spend 6 summers at camp. Some of those were as a volunteer, most were as the Medical Director.
I am so sad to be stepping away, but I know that camp will always be in the background, as will the memory of my time there. I will always believe in the mission and I will always support the cause. I hope that if you are interested, you would get involved as well.
Thank you SO much to all of my camp buddies. You are the best, and I will always cherish our time together.