West Coast Doctor Wouldn’t Miss Volunteering

Written by Christopher Barnett, MD, MPH, University of California San Francisco, Special Love Volunteer

Last night was the Camp Fantastic talent show. About halfway through, a camper came onto stage to perform “holding breath.” He took a big breath in and held it while we all counted to 30, and the audience went crazy with thunderous applause. A few hurried bows and he ran off the stage so the next campers could sing, dance, beat drums, fold origami or act in a skit. Some acts were simple and some complex, but the audience response was always the same… whistles, hoots and thunderous applause at the end. We applauded to congratulate each one on their successful act, but more importantly, in acknowledgement of the remarkable courage, strength, resilience and determination that carried them through their cancer diagnosis and treatment out onto that stage.

While most summer camps might have a small medical staff for emergency care, about 50 nurses, doctors and pharmacists spend time at Camp Fantastic managing everything from dressings for scraped knees on the basketball court to administration of chemotherapy and blood transfusions in the camp infirmary. Our job is to bring medical care to the campers so that they can have a regular summer camp experience with sports, canoes, horses and campfires despite their often intensive medical needs. Our presence is obvious at certain times such as medline four times each day when campers get a quick check-up by Dr. Steve and their nurse team administers pills, creams and shots. Otherwise, we blend in to the rest of camp. We have done our jobs best when the campers don’t even notice that we are there constantly watching over them.

Like the counselors and camp leaders, many medical staff members return to Camp Fantastic year after year. This year is my sixth. I return because Camp Fantastic campers are without question the most inspiring people I have ever met. By the time that they set foot on that talent show stage, each camper has endured countless doctor visits, needle sticks, chemotherapy infusions, painful surgeries and swallowed innumerable pills. Many have lost Camp Fantastic friends and have been faced with their own mortality at an extraordinarily young age. The path to camp is tough and undoubtedly punctuated by tearful and difficult nights but the campers are resilient and courageous. Each powers through with grace and determination to arrive here, at Camp Fantastic, where then run off to play and giggle in joyful defiance of their cancer. Long before the talent show, these campers earned all of the applause and cheering we can muster, 30 seconds of breath holding just gives us an excuse to let it out.

Dr. Chris is seen here as an “honorary princess” which this camper said he needed to be in order to board the princess bus – this on the very first day of camp, before the campers even unloaded and stepped foot on campus. 🙂