charlotteCharlotte Smock Brooks has worked as a pediatric cardiac care nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital for 19 years.  Nine years ago, the family of one of her patients told her that their child was turned away from camp because of his heart condition. As a result, Charlotte and a group of co-workers set out to create a camp specially designed for kids with cardiac conditions. Camp Rhythm opened with 32 kids and 12 counselors in 2005. Going into its 10th year, 150 campers and counselors are registered for camp this summer, and they already have a waiting list. Charlotte makes it a point to see all of her campers when they return to Children’s for care. Recently, she met Isaac, a little boy who will be participating in Camp Rhythm for the first time this summer.

I come to know our patients in a number of different ways. Some of them I meet when they’re admitted to the Heart Center right after they’re born, others I get to know when they’re a little bit older.  I met Isaac’s mom Laurie before I met Isaac. She is part of a family support group for heart patients that we facilitate here at SLCH.  Laurie had told me that her little boy was turning 5 and she would like to enroll him in Camp Rhythm’s mini camp.  We had already started the registration process when Isaac was admitted to Children’s for a cardiac cath procedure a few weeks later.

While he was here, I went to meet him. I brought three photo books filled with pictures of Camp Rhythm. We talked about what the kids are doing, how old they are, etc.  When he saw the picture of the helicopter he was hooked!  He asked if the helicopter came to camp, and I explained that we can’t promise it will be there every year, but our transport team comes whenever they can. Last year, they landed in a field near the camp, and let the kids come on board and take pictures.

I asked Isaac if he’d ever ridden on the helicopter, and he said, “No.” But his mother explained that he goes to day care on our medical campus, and the helicopter sometimes flies overhead, and Isaac talks about it regularly. She also said they’d seen the flight nurses walk across from the garage to the hospital in their suits, and he had put it all together.

After we’d looked at all the pictures, I gathered up my books to leave. Isaac was ready to leave, too. He was all bundled up for the cold when I opened the door, and before I could even look down the hall, he hollered, “There they are!”

isaac with jeffJeff Atwood, a helicopter flight nurse, was standing at the other end of the hall in his blue suit.

Isaac ran down the hall, right up to Jeff, stuck out his little hand, and introduced himself, “I’m Isaac!”

Jeff got down on his knees to Isaac’s level and shook his hand, and said, “Hey, buddy! Do you like helicopters?”

Isaac couldn’t have been more excited.

“Oh, yeah!” he answered, “Do you fly in the helicopter?”

He started pelting Jeff with all kinds of questions about the helicopter. Of course, Jeff gets teary-eyed.  I’m tearing up, and so is Isaac’s mom.  After he finished his conversation with Isaac, Jeff explained to his mom that cardiac kids hold a special place in his heart. Jeff is a flight nurse who once worked in the Heart Center.

It was just classic. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was such a good day. I was happy for them that they had gotten good news from their cath. I’m always happy to talk about camp. And I was delighted that it all tied together.

Isaac is only 5, and this will be his first year at camp. But we’ve had so many kids who have been through our previous nine summers. Our first year, I had counselors who were 18. They’re now 26, 27 and 28, and they still come back. For the older kids, camp is only five days and four nights, but our campers look forward to those five days and four nights all year long. They consider each other their best friends, even though they don’t see each other on a regular basis. They all keep in touch on Facebook, and often attend other hospital events together. When our kids get to be 16, we make them “Junior Counselors.” On their Facebook pages, they all say that they work at Camp Rhythm. It’s amazing to see the support they provide one another.

Looking forward, I’m so excited for what Isaac has ahead, and what an amazing start to his experience running into Jeff was that day! I’m hoping for clear skies and an open field during the three days he spends with us this summer … because I don’t have a choice but to produce that helicopter!

Children attend Camp Rhythm free of charge, thanks to generous donations to the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Foundation. Click here to see pictures from last year’s session of Camp Rhythm.