By Michael Orbach
Issue of August 7, 2009 / 17 Av 5769
Dr. Robert Van Amerongen’s patients have kidney diseases, cerebral palsy, hydrocephalitis and familial dysautonomia — a rare disorder that causes a failure in the autonomic nervous system. Some patients suffer from
conditions that so far doctors have been unable to diagnose. And this isn’t a hospital; it’s a summer camp.
But then again, Camp Simcha Special, a camp with separate twelve-day sessions for boys and girls with serious illnesses, is no ordinary summer camp.
“It really is essentially a huge hospital disguised as a camp,” explained Dr. Van Amerongen, the medical director of Camp Simcha Special, last Thursday. The interview was interrupted by a steady stream of requests, radio calls, and minor emergencies. The profile book of his hundred campers, he says, is roughly the size of “the Manhattan phonebook.”
“You don’t want to drop it on your foot,” Van Amerongen said with a laugh.
Van Amerongen, a resident of the Five Towns, heads the pediatric emergency department of Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and a Hatzalah volunteer. At Camp Simcha Special he leads a sixteen member medical team that includes two other physicians: Dr. Zev Carey, also of the Five Towns, and Dr. Michael Rosen of Passaic; six nurses, three paramedics, two emergency medical technicians, a respiratory therapist and an on-site pharmacist.
Between its two sessions, the camp in Glen Spey, N.Y. is home to over two hundred children from all over the world and at least six hundred staff members.
Camp Simcha Special began eight years ago as an outgrowth of Chai Lifeline’s year-round program that serves 3000 clients annually. The facility, which is
also used for the regular Camp Simcha program for children with cancer and Chai Lifeline’s mid-year retreats, is a 160 acre state-of-the-art campus that is completely wheelchair accessible from the swimming pool to the rope courses. The campus is a camper’s dream: an IMAX theater in the social hall, archery, ceramics, two boats, and soda machines that dispense free beverages.
A sign on the entrance of the camp reads: “Welcome to the happiest place on earth,” and while it is a memorable experience for the campers, it seems that even for the medical staff, gratitude for the experience runs both ways.
“When I’m in an emergency room it’s usually a crisis situation,” Van Amerongen related. “[The kids] are usually very sick; They’re very afraid, I never really appreciated how much of a child they really are. Here, you see they’re just kids. They’re jumping like crazy and singing like crazy. You realize they’re kids like my kids. They have certain limitations and certainly a lot of challenges, but in their hearts they’re kids and just want to have a fun time.”
The summer experience has also left a particularly strong impression on his daughters; the youngest, Jennifer, asked to be housed with campers this summer and not in the staff housing.
“My girls have grown up here and learned a lot of important lessons. Not everyone looks like them and kids who are their age may not be able to do what they do,” Van Amerongen explained. “My seven year old isn’t afraid of children in wheelchairs or on ventilators, because they’re children just like her.”
Rabbi Simcha Scholar, executive vice president of Chai Lifeline, explained the goal of the program extends beyond the summer.
“It’s building these children up, to develop them into citizens. They shouldn’t remain campers their whole lives, that’s not our job. Our job is to build the self-esteem and skills of every child for them to graduate and go on with their lives.”
Rabbi Scholar described the camp as a Torah environment that accepts all Jews from, “Williamsburg Chasidim to Litvaks; kids with long peyes and kids who don’t know what Shabbos is.”
“Everyone gets together, every Jew is equal, [it’s] a laboratory of Ahavas Yisrael [love for fellow Jews]. All of this is only possible because we have the right medical team.” Scholar asserted.
The boy’s session of Camp Simcha Special ended this past Monday.
“I do have a little bit of relief that we got through another summer without a problem,” Van Amerongen said, “It’s a lot of stress, but we’re sad because camp is over. We miss all these magical moments. You walk around camp and you just see magical moments. You try to keep those memories alive over the course of the year and that spurs us on to come back the next year.”