Working with young people who battle chronic illnesses, I often have seen the toll it takes on their every day lives.   At times, we hope that such illnesses will be inconvenient at worst.  They very often become much more than that, unfortunately, and young people often have their lives completely upended by the requirements, worries, and necessities that come with long-term or life-threatening illnesses.  It would not be uncommon for a young person to become separated from the life he or she wants to lead.

Part of the importance of camps such as Flying Horse Farms is that this separation can be erased.  Campers arrive apprehensive but depart delighted.  They bring rules and definitions and leave free and independent.  Camp allows young people to be part of a different peer group – a peer group where they are no longer all that different, a peer group where they are no longer defined by their illnesses but by their personalities.  As a volunteer, it is amazing to watch our campers grow through their week and return home invigorated and excited to share their experiences.

That said, I noticed a very interesting phenomenon at Camp this summer.  One might think that a young person battling a serious illness – an illness that may make he or she look different, miss school, be set apart – might be eager for an opportunity to assert themselves as themselves.  One might expect such a person to be eager to be known by their proper names and not by an illness.  Oh, one would be wrong.  This summer at FHF, we were awash in nicknames.

Shorty … Sponge … Icey … Boodles … Dae-Dae … T-Money … the list is endless.

Some of the campers use these nicknames at home, some do not.  Some answer to their given names at camp, some do not.  Some of the nicknames may have developed or been given at camp, some are longstanding.  Whatever the reality at home, the reality at camp is clear: challenge by choice.  At camp, choice is the key.  Camp provides our young people the ability to choose how they are identified.  No longer are they labeled by their illnesses or by their schedules or by their medications.  Campers choose their identities because that is how they see themselves and they want to be seen by others.  They make the choice to challenge reality to accept their true selves and their true feelings.  Nicknames are a very fun, albeit sometimes ridiculous, side of that choice.  They also are a special memory of our time together at camp.

Responding only to "Shorty" this camper chose to perform a duet at the camper talent show where she received a standing ovation.

Not only is it heartwarming to see how familiar the campers become with one another and with volunteers during a week at Camp, it is also amazing to see the effect of camp after we have left.  The Association of Hole in the Wall camps have always created a special bond between those who have attended or volunteered.  There is always a special glint in the eye or an extra enthusiasm or instant smile when you encounter someone else who has been to a Hole in the Wall Camp or who has been privileged enough to have met the founder,  Paul Newman.  This special feeling is even more gratifying though as a physician returning to work and seeing a former camper at the hospital.

We have a bond.  Part of it, yes, is the shared memory of a great week of fun and overeating and adventures.  A larger, though more unspoken, part, however, is that we shared the experience of forgetting labels and routines and understanding our true identities.   That is an experience that cannot be forgotten easily and cannot be taken away, even by the drudgery and seriousness of battling a chronic illness.  It’s an experience that forever will guarantee that a great number of our campers will forever giggle at me and refuse to acknowledge me as Dr. Cooper.

For, I – in the eyes of the Flying Horse Farms campers of 2011 – am Jakey-Cakes.


Nicknames and costumes are a part of daily life at camp.

Post written by guest blogger, Dr. James Cooper (aka Jakey-Cakes). Dr. Cooper is an oncologist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and is a member of  the Medical Advisory Board at Flying Horse Farms.