Bridge of Life Up Close

My Experience at The Painted Turtle, a Medical Camp for Kids


The Painted Turtle, one of the medical camps for kids that Bridge of Life works with.

Wow, what an amazing gift it was to volunteer at The Painted Turtle. To an outsider, this camp looks like a normal summer camp with swimming, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding, arts and crafts, wood shop, improv, and archery. But when you look closer, you see the nurses visiting kids at meal time with medications, the IV catheter lines that have to get special waterproof dressings so the kids can swim and get wet, and the nighttime ritual of IV poles, TPN bags, oxygen machines and nurse checks every 2 hours. That’s when you know there is something very different, and very special, about this camp.

What impressed me most was the way these children took total responsibility for their medical care. For instance, we had some candy in the cabin that they boys were sharing. One particular boy took some candy and then asked me if I knew what dessert would be that day so he could decide if he would rather eat the candy now or save his sweet item for dessert. Another camper told me after our first lunch together that he needed to go to the Well Shell (the turtle-themed camp medical center) for his “special water.” It turns out that he needed an IV hung after lunch every day. This same boy also has a colostomy bag that he empties and replaces every day. Did I mention this boy is only 10 years old?

One of the high points of my volunteer time was at our closing circle after our final breakfast together. After every meal, there was always loud music, singing and dancing. We knew going in that Henry, one of the boys I also worked with, would not dance. And true to that, he pretty much sat and observed everyone else at every dance session. But at our final closing circle, we were all doing a particular camp dance with arm motions, and when I looked to my right, there was Henry, dancing away with everyone else. What a moment!

The zipline at The Painted Turtle.

The zipline at The Painted Turtle.

One very special event that will stay with me forever was with another boy, Michael. He had a liver transplant, but due to his medical condition, his lungs were failing. There is no long-term cure or treatment for his ailment. He was on oxygen 24/7 and had a backpack that infused him with medication to keep his lungs functioning. If he were to go more than 20 minutes without this medication, he would succumb to his illness. Well, he wanted to climb the ropes course and then zip-line down. First off, every one of my other campers successfully completed this very challenging rope climb. We wanted to find a way to allow Michael to complete it as well. We had our nurse, Jen, with us. Jen is a liver transplant nurse at the University of California Los Angeles and was one of the nurses who took care of Michael after his surgery, so she is very familiar with his care. We knew that Michael could go about 10 minutes without his oxygen tank, but the challenge was the need for a chest harness, and Michael’s backpack of medicine could not be removed or compromised. Jen called the Well Shell where Michael‘s transplant doctor was volunteering, and they decided that the harness can be put on under the backpack to allow Michael to complete this challenge. Jen and I stood back and watched Michael successfully complete the climb and zip-line down. Jen was brought to tears and shared with me that during Michael’s transplant and subsequent stay, his condition was touch-and-go. Michael is one of those special kids. I don’t know what it is, but after you spend time with him, you just know there is something different about him: the way he lights up a room, the way others respond to him, and the way he encourages and cheers everyone else on, whatever they are doing.

This was truly an amazing and beautiful experience. I would recommend it to anyone, as long as you are willing to put yourself out there, maybe look a little silly at times, and be open to whatever comes your way.

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