Thursday, August 19, 2010

Summer, Camp, Kids, Cancer

By Margaret Anderson

While we focus on improving the efficiencies of the system that discovers treatments and cures for disease, there are untold numbers of people taking a medical treatment journey right now.

For the kids partaking in the 28th year of Camp Fantastic in Virginia this week, they get to focus more on the fun, and less on the challenges of coping with a cancer diagnosis and with treatment. Camp Fantastic is a program of a nonprofit called Special Love that gives cancer families support.

I learned of this amazing place from Kathy Russell who has been involved since its beginning and who also runs the Children’s Inn at NIH. The NIH Children’s Inn helps families with kids in treatment at the NIH Clinical Center get a bit of normalcy in their lives by providing a warm atmosphere for them to stay in versus an isolating hotel room. The overriding philosophy is that families make a key difference in the lives of their sick children. The work they do represents the full spectrum of NIH investment – from bench to bedside.

By the end of my chat with Kathy, after I dabbed my eyes, I was ready to pack my bags and tell everyone I knew to come with me to help prepare Camp Fantastic and allow kids there to take a break from cancer and be just kids. This year there will be nearly 100 kids at Camp Fantastic between ages 7-17. Usually one-half of them are in active treatment and there are upwards of 60 medical professionals (in addition to countless other folks) who volunteer their time before and during the camp. They literally set up a mini-hospital on-site because it’s in a remote location and far from a hospital with specialized pediatric oncology services. She told me of how kids get their bloodwork done in the am, and a van takes the samples into NIH to do labs and then turns back around with results and medication.

Every year, at least one child is usually transported from the camp in an ambulance or a helicopter to a hospital for further treatment, requiring diligent attention to medical details as well as a carefully thought through psychosocial plan of action to share that news with the other campers. Families are communicated with each day, and as you’d imagine many are nervous and excited about their kids being there. Some children participate while in their final stages of life. Their families make the ultimate sacrifice by being selfless enough to share their children with others, so that their kids can live out their final hopes and dreams – the same dreams we all have. To do the things we dream of doing, especially those seemingly simple things associated with summertime.

Stories like this remind me of the passion and dedication of the medical research community, of the care providing community, and of the volunteer community. It’s a reality check for me, and for those of us who work on policy-related issues. These kids and their families point out the obvious – that time is of the essence in all we are doing to get to faster cures.

It can be hard to make the FasterCures message personal at times as we deal with mostly macro-level issues, but hearing about Camp Fantastic reminded me why we do what we do. Because it’s summer vacation time, and every kid (and for that matter, every grown-up) deserves a shot at creating their own lazy crazy hazy days of summer memories.

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