What I learned about caring communities (the hard way)
Posted July 25, 2017
This month marks seven years since a nearly life-ending event. Heretofore, I have neither written about that experience nor, frankly, spent much time analyzing its import. Was it a game changer? I honestly don’t know.
Nevertheless, my decision not to write about being diagnosed with a big (think “large orange”) brain tumor in July of 2010 changed in April of 2017 while I was watching an interview on NBC’s “Today Show.” The discussion on hand that morning was with Bob Harper, a 51-year-old fitness guru who had a major, “widow maker,” heart attack while completing a CrossFit workout at his gym.
I was 51!
Bob explained through tears, “I was in full cardiac arrest. My heart stopped. Not to be dramatic, but I was dead. I was on that ground dead” (Frank, 2017). What saved him? He credits the presence of two doctors in the same gym at the same time with bringing him back to life, albeit in a coma for two days.
Were there any analogs to Bob’s situation and mine? Yes – being with the right people at the right time.
My good fortune was to be with friends and co-workers, some of whom had known me for decades. They were able to detect at-first subtle changes in speech, gait and behavior. My judgment impaired by the tumor’s location (right frontal lobe), these colleagues substituted theirs. I wound up in the emergency room at Cape Cod Hospital late one Sunday night. While I don’t recall much, I do remember the doctor, CT scan results in hand, closing the curtain around my bay and saying, “Mr. Wallace, I’m afraid I have very bad news.”
Bad indeed. Another doctor at the hospital that night looked at the same image and pronounced, “He’s dead.”
I was told that I had a choice to undergo surgery immediately or be transported to Boston (although I learned later that none of the local neurosurgeons would risk the procedure). I chose Boston. Massachusetts General Hospital, to be precise.
Prior to surgery, Dr. Will Curry appeared bedside to warn me of potential outcomes – if I survived. I might not be able to work again. And I might need to learn a second time how to speak, write and walk.
If I survived.
Awakening from seven hours of surgery, I heard my oldest sibling, Susan, ask me, “How do you feel?” I won’t print my response.
Four days later, too advanced to be admitted to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital as was the plan, I was discharged with outpatient scripts for physical, occupational and speech and language therapies.
Three intake evaluations, three discharges. Bingo.
What lie ahead was better than the medical experts thought. That was the good news. The bad news? Insomnia, night sweats, nightmares, more medications than I could count and ... missing camp.
Indeed, my season at camp had been interrupted halfway to the finish line. I was aggrieved.
But the cards, letters, fruit arrangements, calls, emails, texts and visits from camp friends – along with a bound set of letters from approximately 150 kids in our teen leadership program – brightened each and every day during my recovery.
Two weeks on, I was strong enough to take short walks in my neighborhood (although I got lost once just a street over), and soon I was able to visit camp! Meetings with campers and staff had been arranged, although they had been warned not to touch me lest I be injured in some way.
With the healing taking hold, I rallied from my couch, put on a coat and tie (and a Red Sox cap to hide my scar) and made it to the end of our camp’s closing-night ceremony. There I announced the names of our graduating “assistant counselors.”
I also showed up the following morning to greet many of the parents whose words of support had helped make my (“miracle”) recovery relatively quick, if not painless.
In the end, I credit my co-workers, my surgeon and, just as important, my camp community for my being back working, writing and giving speeches that October.
So, what is the moral of this story? That camp is a world of good.
According to the American Camp Association, “Camp provides children with a community of caring adults, who nurture experiential education that results in self-respect and appreciation for human value. All of the outcomes – self-identity, self-worth, self-esteem, leadership, and self-respect – build personal competencies. These personal competencies are reflected in the four ‘C's’ of the camp community: compassion, contribution, commitment, and character! For years, campers' parents have reported that when their children return home from camp they are more caring, understand the importance of giving, are more equipped to stand up for what they know is right, and are willing to be more responsible. These are the qualities that will help build a successful nation and a civil society” (ACA, 2017).
Civil and kind.
Scientists, too, have found the connection between social emotional support and positive medical outcomes. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services says, “During the last 30 years, researchers have shown great interest in the phenomena of social support, particularly in the context of health. Prior work has found that those with high quality or quantity of social networks have a decreased risk of mortality in comparison to those who have low quantity or quality of social relationships, even after statistically controlling for baseline health status. In fact, social isolation itself was identified as an independent major risk factor for all-cause mortality. Current research has focused on expanding several areas of knowledge in this area. These include social support influences on morbidity, mortality, and quality of life … [and] understanding the mechanisms responsible for such associations, and how we might apply such findings to design relevant interventions” (Reblin and Uchino, 2008).
They need look no further than their local summer camp for answers. Trust me, I learned about caring communities the hard way.
ACA. (2017). Benefits of camp. American Camp Association. http://www.acacamps.org/campers-families/because-camp/benefits-camp (24 April 2017).
Frank, G. (2017). Bob Harper opens up on 'widow-maker' heart attack: 'I was on that ground dead'. Today Show. April 4, 2017. http://www.today.com/health/biggest-loser-bob-harper-opens-today-about-… (24 April 2017).
Quinn, D. (2017). Bob Harper reveals he only survived “widowmaker” heart attack at 51 because doctors happened to be at his gym. Health. People. April 4, 2017. http://people.com/bodies/bob-harper-widowmaker-heart-attack-today-show/ (24 April 2017).
Reblin, M. and B. Uchino. (2008). Social and emotional support and its implication for health. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 21(2). March 2008. National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2729718/ (24 April 2017).