I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Camp CHOPS — now named Camp EdBear — in early June 1991. I had just gotten out of Akron Children’s Hospital on March 13, after having spent 67 days there fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia and an infection on my brain. I was weak, a shell of the 15-year-old boy I was when I crossed the third-floor bridge on Jan. 4. Sure, I was starting to get some strength back, now that I was at home and receiving less powerful doses of chemotherapy, but I wasn’t strong enough. In my mind, I thought it would be better to spend the weekend laying in my own bed and watching TV.
The doctors and the nurses weren’t entirely sure I was strong enough either. They conferred as to whether or not I could or should spend a weekend in the wilderness, but ultimately Dr. Alex Koufos said I could, indeed, that I should. And so I did.
We rode on a school bus from Akron Children’s to Camp Christopher in Bath. I bunked with some of the older kids, including a boy named Sam* (*his name has been changed to protect his privacy), who I knew from a support group that Nancy Carst set up. This was the first time I traveled somewhere without my parents since I had gotten sick, the first time I had gone anywhere other than home, the hospital or school for a quick visit.
I have two distinct memories from my first trip to Camp CHOPS. The first comes from that Friday night, when Sam and I laid in our bunks and listened to Game 3 of the NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls were taking on the Los Angeles Lakers, and both Sam and I were Michael Jordan fanatics. We skipped the ice cream social in order to listen to a game that was being played nearly 2,400 miles away. We cheered when the Bulls scored, groaned when the Lakers did. We jumped up and down when Chicago won in overtime, high-fiving each other, feeling like winners for the first time in a while.
And the next day, a beautiful, sunny day that reached into the 80s, I sat on the aluminum dock that jutted out into the pond. Other kids were swimming or canoeing, but I had a central line and couldn’t get it wet. Someone said a nurse could go out on the pond with me in a canoe, but I said no, I just wanted to sit there. I pulled my shoes off and dipped my feet into the water. I had headphones over my ears, my Walkman tuned to an AM radio station, which was broadcasting a baseball game. I sat on the dock in a trance, mesmerized by the sun bouncing off the water, by the water lapping my toes. There was so much happening around me, chaos and order, all thrown together on one pond and beach, and it filtered in to me in a most serene way. I could have sat there for hours, for days, for weeks. It was the first time in 8 months that I felt good, right.
I loved Camp CHOPS — the way it made me feel stronger, but also the fun we had with our nurses and doctors and their families — so much, I came back the next year (and many subsequent years). In 1992, I was 16 years old, so they made me a Counselor-In-Training. It was on this weekend that I got to know other teens — some of whom survived their cancers and some who didn’t — who I still think about on a daily basis. There were 6 of us; 2 girls, who survived their cancers when they were younger, a boy, who was the son of our Clinic nurse Pam, two others and myself. We were all still being treated for the diseases that had upended our lives, but that didn’t stop us from having fun. When we weren’t working — filling water bottles, making snow cones, taking the little kids out onto the pond in a canoe, ushering everyone through the food lines and taking some of the youngest campers to the restroom — we just hung out and talked. We played cards. We went horseback riding. It was the first time I had friends who knew what I had gone through, who could relate to it, who could understand it. It was the first time I realized that I wasn’t alone.
That’s what Camp CHOPS gave me, and I’ll never forget the camp or Akron Children’s for that gift. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I not gone to camp that first time, in 1991. I would have missed out on an experience that started to make me feel whole again. If I hadn’t gone that first year, there’s a chance I wouldn’t have gone the second and the many years after, and then my life would have certainly been less for it.