In Joyful Defiance of Their Cancer

SL_Blog_ChrisChristopher Barnett, MD, 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 roaring 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 applaud to congratulate each one on his or her successful act, but more important, to acknowledge the remarkable courage, strength, resilience, and determination that carried them through their cancer diagnosis and treatment out onto that stage.

SL_Blog_InJoyfulDefianceWhile most summer camps might have a small medical staff for emergency care, more than 50 nurses, doctors, and pharmacists spend time at Camp Fantastic each year managing everything from dressings for scraped knees on the basketball court to administering chemotherapy and blood transfusions in the camp infirmary. Our job is to bring medical care to the campers so 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 the “medline” four times a 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’ve done our jobs best when the campers don’t even notice we’re 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 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 they 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. Thirty seconds of breath-holding just gives us an excuse to let it out.