Camp Star Trails

This past weekend I got to enjoy going to Camp Star Trails for the sixth time in my short life, the camp for children with cancer and their siblings.  It has been two years since I got to go, and that made it so much more wonderful to attend this year.

It started well- basketball with fellow counselors and a subsequent collision head to head with one of my fellow players that left a considerable gash just off my left eye that really needed stitches but had to settle without.  And more basketball the next morning.  And lots of good hanging out with counselors I hadn’t seen in a long time.

And then there was the kids.  To be around kids during a camp is an awesome experience, and oft made better with nicknames.  These kids, with my given nicknames- O-Dog, Z-Money, Q, Papa, Tony, Hambone, Ketch, Schmowzow, Bacon and Poncho.  Awesome kids.  These are the kind of kids that love fart jokes as 11 year olds.  They love squashing bugs.  They love playing dodgeball and throwing bals at one another.  They loved playing Connect 4 and Headbanz (guessing what your card identifies you as- I am a Cat, I am Ketchup…).  These kids were great.

So great that when asked for a Cabin activity to pick, given options like Sports, High Ropes, Zipline, Nature, Canoeing, Horses, Archery…well you get the point, they choose instead Beauty Spa!  And they loved it- they even rallied at the dinner table on Sunday night, chanting “Beauty Spa” over and over again. Well, we went, and when we went, they eagerly painted one another’s nails, sang chick flic songs, and enjoyed a tea party while learning to extend their pinkies with class.  It was incredible!  It was so cute!  The kids even banded together to paint the counselors nails, purple with glitter and candy apple red for me.  What a precious experience!  Those kids were my kind of kids for sure!  Proud to be boys, not afraid to be sensitive!!!

But let me tell you what camp is really about.  While waiting in line for dinner with one kid, I asked what it was like for him to be the sibling and have his brother go through his leukemia (and by the way was finishing his last treatment of chemo).  He answered me very quickly without much thought: “lonely”.  It is truly heartbreaking.  Why lonely?  Mom’s at the hospital, Dad must work, brother is sick sequestered at the hospital.  He must be at a relative’s house the whole year of treatment.  That is truly lonely.  Lost a playmate, lost a mother (for the time being), lost a father (for the time being).  Lost a family.  That is heartbreaking.  But I got an opportunity to tell him that that I was sorry to hear that and that that is hard.  And I got to show him that he is valuable by telling him that he is an incredible big brother who has a lot of love.  It is these opportunities that make going to Camp Star Trails a beyond incredible experience, an experience in which I can reach out to not only sick kids but also to their siblings, letting them know that they are loved and valuable and that someone cares for them, that someone is willing to play with them, and that someone is willing to laugh with them, and that someone is willing to be hurt with them.  That’s a priceless opportunity, a true ministry for me.

The Kid

I felt the knot in my stomach.  Just after I talked to the kid, I felt like I had been sucker punched and my blood was pulsing.  I was hooked.  I knew that feeling, and I knew where that kid was.

This 12 year old kid is a good kid.  But he was with his little brother riding their bikes one afternoon, and his brother was hit by a drunk driver.  His brother has now been in the hospital for months, has little function, and cannot talk now but moans at a low tone most of the day.  That is sad enough.

And yet this 12 year old brother is dealing with lots of guilt and anger and sadness.  What is this kid supposed to do when he sees his brother, or when he hears about the driver’s court issues, or when he has to stay at the hospital listening to his brother moan and be fed by someone else and whose diapers must be changed by mom or dad or even him- what is this kid supposed to do?  You might be able to pick it up, but because of summer break from school, he is now staying at the hospital for days at a time, even as much as a week.

So today I went to talk with him, which I have done a couple times.  Those previous times he has been quiet, sometimes more talkative than others, but always holding some powerful emotions within.  I was going to play pool with him for a while on our 16th floor, but when I arrived, I could tell things weren’t right.  He seemed upset and frustrated with his family, and he didn’t really want to talk.  His eyes betrayed some frustration with life.  But his father forced him to go walk with me and talk with me, but I could tell that wasn’t going to go well.

During our short conversation, he didn’t even want to talk about his baseball games or anything about life outside.  He was angry and he acknowledged it.  I offered to talk with him about his anger with his dad, but he turned me down.  I told him that I could see he was really angry being at the hospital, that he didn’t like it here, and that his situation sucked right now.  He nodded.  I told him he looked really angry, and that I was sorry that all this had happened.  It is awful, it sucks, and I could see why he would angry, I said.

But his anger, his hidden, stuffed frustration was eating me alive.  Why?  Because I remember being the kid who was stuck in waiting rooms while loved ones suffered and died.  I hurt for him because I too got to spend many days in waiting areas where I didn’t belong.  I hurt for him because I was forced at times to play with friends at the hospital, learn to not be bored there, and play games with a forced smile hiding lots of pain in that place.  I hurt for him.  I hurt for this kid who couldn’t express himself but as he couldn’t took on more and more guilt for being the cause of these problems.  It hurts to watch 12 year olds die.  But it may hurt more for me to see this kind of suffering.  12 year olds should not struggle with guilt and be overcome by painful guilt and anger that isn’t theirs.  I guess what made it hurt so much to watch was that there was little I could do, little I could say, little I could be to make things just a tad bit better.  There is a bit of helplessness, which is often a normal response to someone else’s guilt.

I left that meeting and I could see he was on the verge of tears.  I wanted to hit something hard both for him and for me.  And you know, that is okay.  It hurts but it is likely that every moment that I get to spend, there is trust being developed and I cannot underestimate the impact of being available and just saying it sucks.  But it does hurt.  And it is important for me to realize that I can’t fix it, and the pain for this kid won’t be  something that ever will be solved, go away, or be fixed.  But I can hope that he can find comfort, even a little bit, a release from the guilt, even a little bit, and that maybe he will find some joy in life, even a little bit.  I did.  And that is hope in the midst of despair I think.

Blown It

Man, I blew that one.  I missed it.  Sometimes there are events at the hospital that we aren’t supposed to miss.  But it does happen.

A family has been here for quite a while and has gotten to the point of withdrawal.  I am told by a nurse that they are extubating the pt soon.  I assumed that extubation was a good thing, but knowing their situation it was an illogical choice.  So instead of calling the support team, the social worker and child life specialist, to get our support in place for withdrawal and death, I sit on the news until it is just happening.  Unfortunately, by that time the child will die soon, and family will leave quickly, and small opportunities like hand and foot molds were not able to be done in appropriate time nor were we able to provide the breadth of our support.

It is small.  Yet, it feels like I blew it.  I wasn’t thinking.  And this is all a part of becoming a better chaplain, of learning how some nurses talk about withdrawals and getting a read on the unit.  But even when the mother ran out crying, we, and I weren’t prepared.  I didn’t know what had just gone, what condition the child was in, whether they had just withdrawn or not at all.  The bottom line is that we weren’t prepared and part of that is on me.

Where the rubber hits the road for me here is that I am no more a student chaplain.  There are always ways to continue learning and improving.  However, in this case I believe part of me, the deeper part of me believed that the professionals would acknowledge and that I would follow up to find my role.  But I am a professional.  I can and need to think of myself as a staff chaplain that makes assessments, considers all the possibilities.  I am a professional.  It is not about following the role given to me, but being confident in the chaplain I have become and always be attentive to the needs.  In other words, rather than waiting on others to better define my role, I must be more intentional and alert.  This situation doesn’t happen often, or I wouldn’t be a good chaplain.  I am not decrying my ministry as a whole.  But events happen that alert me to adjustments I need to make.  My ability to make those adjustments is why I was hired, because I am a professional who is capable of handling, assessing, and ministering to the needs that cross my path.

Just a little reflection on the day.