Therapy camp offers seriously ill kids an escape
by Dr. Sharon Space
Big billowy clouds pushed across blue skies as a breeze drifted off the lake. Children were laughing and singing. Some were fishing off the dock and along the shore. It was another perfect summer day at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn., in 1989.
I'd decided to work as a camp counselor against my academic advisors' recommendations to spend my second year of medical school in a windowless research lab. Little did I know how profoundly this decision would shape my life.
Founded by Paul Newman in 1988, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp offers children with cancer and other serious illnesses a place to kick back, relax and "raise a little hell" — as Newman put it. In the years since, more than 100,000 children have escaped for a week, a few days, or a few hours, sharing life-changing moments with families, volunteers and staff members.
After several rewarding summers as a camp counselor and after completing my pediatric residency in 1994, I began to volunteer in the camp infirmary. It was there I met 7-year-old Katy.
Doctors had diagnosed her with leukemia about a year before. Katy's hair was just starting to grow back - a blond peach fuzz covering her scalp. She'd been swimming that morning, but came to the camp infirmary because she wasn't feeling so well. Her temperature had reached 102.5.
For a child receiving chemotherapy, a fever is a life-threatening emergency. It means a trip to the ER, needles, blood draws, IV antibiotics and often hospital admission. But because Katy got her fever at camp, the medical staff provided all the treatment she needed on-site, while she completed an arts and crafts project. I love that kids like Katy can be treated at camp, and continue to have fun.
After her evaluation, treatment and discussion with her doctors at home, they decided she could stay at camp as long as we monitored her closely. She and her counselor skipped out of the infirmary and up to dinner where I saw them singing and dancing a short time later.
That's exactly how camp works. Kids won't see doctors in white coats, stethoscopes, sterile white walls or hospital beds, but there is medical support just the same. There are also trees to climb, horses to ride, fish to catch, friends to be made and counselors to love you unconditionally. Incidentally, the rest of us feel the love as well.
Years ago, on another perfect day on the dock, I leaned over to another counselor and said, "Someday, I'm going to be the medical director of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp." And now I am. This camp may be a place for kids to dream, but for me it's been a dream come true.
Dr. Sharon Space became medical director of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Conn., in 2005. The free, donor-funded camp - the first of 11 opened worldwide by actor and philanthropist Paul Newman - serves more than 15,000 children each year through summer, weekend and hospital outreach programs.