A familiar face over the last decade of Camp Fantastic has been of the Camp Medical Director, Dr. Jack F. Shern MD, or just “Dr. Jack”. When he isn’t providing medical care and coordination for camp, Dr. Jack is a physician and researcher with the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research where he is leading the way in the fight against pediatric cancer.
When Dr. Jack was completing his clinical fellowship in 2010, he was told by a senior fellow at NIH about Camp Fantastic as a way to gain new perspective, build relationships and, “a really fun way to see the patients outside of the clinic.” Since his first year at Camp Fantastic, Dr. Jack has continued to serve Special Love’s kids and families as he puts it, “the medical director, camp doctor and a superfan.”
Dr. Jack has made a commitment to ensure that kids attending Camp don’t have to put their childhood or their treatment on hold.
“Our biggest job is to make sure we understand all the campers’ medical history and what they will need while at camp. Our goal is to really have a fully staffed and supplied pediatric oncology clinic open 24/7 while we are at camp.”
Dr. Jack shared that Camp Fantastic, is not just a week of fun and adventure for kids fighting cancer, it’s part of an NIH protocol that is as old as Camp Fantastic itself, started in 1983 titled, “Psychological Benefits of a ‘Normalized’ Camping Experience for Children with Cancer”. He says in a 2021 article entitled, On Missing Camp Fantastic, Again…
“Multiple studies have documented the value of a camping experience for children who suffer from cancer with benefits including a sense of empowerment and social connection, and measurable improvements in social skills, self-esteem, and psychological functioning.”
He goes on to write:
“There are many important therapies that I have witnessed in my years coming to camp; first and foremost is the idea that “I am going to have the fun that cancer took away from me. Camp is…an opportunity to leave the clinic and therapy behind and just be normal.”
Dr. Jack shares that camp provides invaluable, life-giving concepts to the kids who take on the Camp Fantastic adventure, such as: “I am powerful and able to overcome challenges and fears” and, “I am not alone”; the latter, he says, “Is probably the most important aspect of camp magic, where campers can discover someone who knows the horrors of cancer and has walked in their shoes.”
Dr. Jack expressed that: “The campers and their families are not the only ones who benefit from the oncology camp experience”, and that:
“For the physicians and nurses who participate in Camp Fantastic there is without doubt talk about the exhaustion of the experience, but also the “battery recharge” and “resetting of the compass” that occurs during the week… More powerful is seeing your patients outside of the hospital or clinic catching their first fish, singing around a campfire, being silly, and fondly remembering friends who lost their battle. Camp for me is a powerful reminder of why we work in this profession.”
While relating memories from his more than a decade at Camp Fantastic, Dr. Jack said that one in particular stood out to him from a “Science” class:
“One of the kids that I was sent to ‘watch’ in this class was someone who was really homesick and struggling. He was withdrawn and clearly struggling, but he really got into (the activity), and so did another little boy about his same age. They played off of each other for the rest of the period and you could clearly see a powerful bond forming. Not surprisingly, you rarely saw the two separated in the coming years’ camps and the homesickness was never again an issue.”
In reminiscing about his years with Special Love, Dr. Jack said that: “This is some kind of magical organization that has attracted good people who will bend over backwards to make this whole operation special for these children”. When asked if he feels that Special Love and Camp Fantastic have made a difference in his life and in the lives of his patients and their families, he states unequivocally, “Without a doubt.”