3rd Annual Dragonfly Heart Camp at Echo Hill

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The third annual Dragonfly Heart Camp took place last week at Echo Hill Outdoor School.  Thirty campers with pulmonary hypertension who’ve had heart and/or lung transplants joined a team of doctors, nurses, and counselors from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for a week of bonding, team-building, and outdoor exploration facilitated by the Outdoor School teachers.  This year’s group was the largest yet for a Dragonfly Heart Camp.

The camp was founded by Kent County’s Rhonda Cataldo.  Her daughter, Sarah, battled cardiomyopathy for a year before receiving a heart transplant at the age of eight.

Some campers were a few years removed from their procedures, while a group of three teenage boys had received transplants just four months ago.  Dragonfly Heart Camp offers them a chance to interact with other children who share their medical histories.  When they go swimming at the beach, there are no questions about scars on one’s chest or abdomen; they understand each other in a way that might be impossible for outsiders to comprehend.

For children who’ve spent so much of their young lives in hospitals, Dragonfly Heart Camp gives them the chance to indulge in the simple summertime pleasures of childhood.  Campers who had never before held a fishing rod, squealed with delight at the tugs on their line and hurried to reel in a perch, or catfish, or rockfish.  They chased fireflies at night and roasted marshmallows for s’mores.  Footballs and Frisbees seemed to fly through the air whenever there was free time.

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of facing the fragility of health and life that causes the Dragonfly campers to embrace an existence of fun and frivolity.  Pranks abounded throughout the week.  At anytime anyone was fair game for a water balloon bombardment, an ice cube dropped down one’s back, or a shaving cream pie to the face, as two of the CHOP medical staff can attest.

The week at Echo Hill Outdoor School also gives the campers a chance to interact with the CHOP staff outside of the hospital.  Suddenly Dr. Hannah and his crew aren’t just the people in scrubs who tend to you when you’re not feeling well, but they’re also the one’s teaching you to float on your back, or picking blueberries with you at Lockbriar Farms, or helping you to get over a bout of homesickness at night.

On their final night together, the Dragonfly Campers gathered around a campfire to sing songs and reminisce on their week together.  Some favorite memories for the younger girls included makeovers and dance parties in their dorm at night.  The boys enjoyed playing water basketball in the Bay and Texas Hold ‘Em at night.

For all the hardships they’ve endured, the campers see themselves as lucky.  They know they’ve overcome long odds to be where they are today.  They recognize that tomorrow is no guarantee.  One of the older boys broke down when telling the story of a girl he’d met in the hospital.  They became friends over the course of many months waiting for a transplant.  He’s four months removed from his surgery; she did not survive hers.  At an age when most teenagers are stressing over pimples, he’s left to wonder why he’s still alive and his friend is not.

On the final day of camp, their families arrive for the Closing Ceremony.  For most of the campers, their time spent at Dragonfly Heart Camp marks the first time since they got sick that they’ve been away from their families.  The reunions are emotional events marked by tears and bear hugs.  As the parents watch a slideshow of their children, who were once too weak to get out of bed, racing down the zip-line, posing with fish they caught, or simply making funny faces for the camera, they beam with pride.  Thanks to a combination of the camper’s resolve and the medical staff’s vigilance they’ve been able to spend this week like children do at summer camps all across the country.

As the time comes to head their separate ways, it’s obvious that the children of Dragonfly Heart Camp aren’t ready to leave each other.  Already they talk about coming back to Echo Hill Outdoor School next year.  Returning to the place where complete strangers can meet, already knowing where each other comes from.

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