There was something strange about the way he was handling his shirt. She couldn't put her finger on it, but it was odd; like he was trying to hide something.
That's what intuition was telling Lisa Knight, RN, a cardiac nurse at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, Los Angeles, about the patient she was caring for. When she asked the young boy to explain himself, he replied that he'd discovered a way to remove his shirt so that no one saw the scars from his most recent surgery. Knight and the attending physician were both taken back by the candid response.
"We realized that although we'd treated his body, there were scars this boy was carrying that we couldn't see," Knight recalled. "There was another level of healing we needed to address."
Having been a volunteer at various camps for children, Knight felt the best way to help this boy and other children like him might be to offer them a chance to participate in confidence-building activities through a summer camp. To her surprise, the only camp for children with cardiac conditions was quite costly and located in Louisiana. There had to be another option; there was. It was starting her own camp for children with special cardiac needs.
"We really didn't know what we were doing because none of us had actually run an entire summer camp," Knight admitted. "After it was over, we realized the only thing that did matter was that the kids had a great experience. So it was from that seed of knowledge that we've turned this camp into a wonderful opportunity for lots of kids."
Keeping it Simple
What started out as a summer camp on Catalina Island for 49 children 15 years ago has now blossomed into a 3-week summer event and its related programs that serve more than 400 children between ages 7 and 17. It may sound complex, but the idea behind Camp del Corazon is really quite simple: freedom and fun to build confidence.
"All activities, from climbing walls to kayaking, are designed around the personal success of the kids," Knight explained. "If they can't participate in some activities, that's fine. Nothing is mandatory. There are plenty of things to do where kids can be active and successful at a variety of activity levels."
"My No. 1 priority for the kids is that the medical staff is accessible, friendly and not scary," said Kathy McCloy, MSN, RN, ACNP, nurse practitioner with UCLA Santa Monica Cardiology and camp nursing director. "We're not a camp that's all about heart disease. The medical safety net is there, but very much in the background. We want kids to forget about their condition and focus on having fun through new experiences."
Camaraderie Is Key
Experiencing multiple surgeries and limitations that don't affect their school companions can leave children with cardiac conditions feeling isolated. Knight impressed that the only time these children encounter someone their age with a similar experience is in a doctor's waiting room; not exactly the ideal environment to socialize. That's why Camp del Corazon emphasizes camaraderie over competition, for its lasting, healing benefit.
"These kids end up making lifetime friends because many of them have never met anyone their age who has gone through the same experience," Knight said.