June 6, 2020
George and I watched “Crip Camp” on Netflix recently. Boy, did that bring back memories! My daughter Barbie and I experienced a very similar camp experience during that same era (early 1970s), and the behavior of all involved was very similar, too.
All campers were severely disabled. Many in our country at that time were not interested in making life livable for disabled people. The camp counselors at both camps were young “hippie” types. I was called by the camp director in early July and asked to serve as Camp Nurse. I was only one year out of nursing school. He promised me $300 a week for two weeks. He didn’t tell me that there were 150 severely disabled campers, nor did he tell me that this camp in the past had hired two nurses. My daughter Barbie was 13 and came with me to help. She was a godsend to me while we worked there together. Daily letters from George helped my morale, too. After Barbie had to leave early for her own camp, I was devastated!
On arrival, I found that our lodging was one end of a small infirmary, with two cots for us to sleep on. There were other beds in the same room for injured or ill campers. At least there was a bathroom! I was presented with several pages listing the 150 campers and all of their medications and instructions. I had to sit down to read it, in shock to say the least. One little girl had hydrocephalus and her neurologist’s letter said, “Essential to push on her pump button under the skin behind her ear each morning and night. If it feels hard and doesn’t depress, it is a neurological emergency.” There were other such frightening letters as well, too many to name. I didn’t sleep well that night.
I busied myself sorting through the medication list and organizing some pill trays for the next day when campers and their medications would arrive. They needed to be given morning, noon, dinner time and bedtime, without fail. I decided to give the first three doses at mealtimes in the large dining hall, and then go around to the cabins for the bedtime doses. The next morning many buses, cars and vans arrived and 150 campers emerged, many in wheelchairs, many on crutches. The counselors led them to their correct cabins, and I then went around and collected all of their medications. I had to hurry in order to have the pill trays ready by lunchtime.
As I entered the large dining hall at noon, I noticed that there were flies buzzing everywhere. Barbie sat down at once and saved a place for me so that I could have lunch after dispensing all the pills. This was not easy since many of the campers could not take the pills themselves. I had to throw pills into constantly gyrating mouths and then try to get some water in too. Back at her table, Barbie served up my plate along with hers, and then had to swat away flies during her entire meal. By the time I finished my job, I staggered back to have lunch, but had NO appetite! And the flies kept buzzing all over the table. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks!
The first night, I went to give the bedtime pills and tried to push the pump button for the little girl with hydrocephalus. It was hard as a rock and would not depress! Horrified, I called her neurologist but could not reach him. Another sleepless night! He called me back the next morning, and simply said, “Just check it again. It’s not really an emergency yet.”
The counselors were wonderful with their campers. Many fun activities were planned including horseback riding, a Halloween in July Night, camping in the adjacent forest with campers in sleeping bags, games, races, crafts and many other delightful things. Most of the campers lived in large facilities and had pretty grim lives the rest of the year. One night while walking on a forest path in the dark with my loaded pill tray, paper cups and a large pitcher of water, I heard noises amid the trees. I had been warned that two girls had been attacked in that very forest earlier that summer. I was on full alert. When I finally arrived at the campsite, one large camper was so excited to see me that he threw his arms out and knocked away my pill tray. Pills flew! I had to return to the infirmary for refills, and then trudge back to the camp site. It was very late when I finished.
I grew fond of many of the campers while helping them in many ways. My favorite was a thin boy about 11 years old who had cerebral palsy. He couldn’t seem to get his pills into his mouth any other way than to lean his head back and open his mouth like a little bird. So I called him Little Bird affectionately. Barbie too grew fond of some of the campers and loved to tell them jokes and stories. One day a film crew arrived for a few days filming the camp and all the activities, just like in this film “Crip Camp.” As they were leaving, one of the camera crew leaned out of her car window to talk to me. She told me that Barbie and I had the most beautiful mother-daughter relationship that she had ever seen. That really warmed my heart.
Finally the two weeks were over, and after saying goodbye to all 150 of the severely handicapped campers, and having Little Bird reach out and kiss my hand, I dragged myself back to our room in the infirmary. I put on my bathing suit and went out to the swimming pool in the dark. I just stood there in the shallow end and sobbed for about 30 minutes, letting the stress go. I flew home to my beloved family the next day.
The Camp promised me $600 for those two weeks, but when my check came, it was for just over $200! Large amounts had been taken out for room and board, such as they were. That food was truly disgusting with all those flies, in spite of Barbie’s valiant swatting efforts. Our “room” with its cots was most objectionable. We were awake half of each night with the moaning and crying of injured or sick campers! And in spite of that, my pay was docked! I couldn’t believe it, but did not report it to anyone higher.
Nine months later, the organization I had worked for sent me a letter asking me to be the Director for the coming summer! When I called them to say “NO WAY,” they told me that the Director while we were there was in prison for embezzling camp funds! I do remember that his wife was a polio survivor and walked with Canadian crutches. She actually ran the camp while her husband spent his time in a bar in a nearby town! We never saw him in camp. And to think Barbie and I did the work of two nurses. We walked into a real challenge didn’t we?