Summer Fun for Packard Children’s Patients

Camp Heart + Hands

Nestled in the redwoods of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, Camp Heart + Hands may seem like any other typical summer camp—full of games, campfires and dozens of fun activities. But kids who attend this camp all share one thing in common: They each have a history of cancer or are currently undergoing cancer treatment.

Camp Heart + Hands is a free program offered by Jacob’s Heart, a nonprofit organization providing childhood cancer support services, in partnership with camp director Darcy Swisher, a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) nurse at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. It’s a special time for children and adolescents who have been faced with cancer, along with their families, to set aside their worries for a while and just have fun. During the three-day retreat, a number of activities take place, including a carnival, a rock-climbing wall, zip-lining, swimming, and arts and crafts. Many campers also arrived in fun cowboy hats and bandanas to fit in with this year’s western theme.

“I have moments when I see joy on a child’s face or a brief sense of reprieve in a parent’s eyes. Just a small escape from the stress at home or the hospital. This camp exists for those moments,” said Swisher.

At 13, Swisher began volunteering at a similar pediatric oncology camp that was completely operated by nurses. Through her volunteering experience and working with her nurse colleagues at the camp, she was inspired to become a nurse herself and wanted eventually to start a similar camp closer to home. In 2015, Swisher and the Jacob’s Heart Foundation combined fundraising efforts, raising more than $35,000 to launch the first year of Camp Heart + Hands.

But Swisher isn’t the only Packard Children’s clinician giving of her time outside of work. Since the first year of camp, volunteer clinicians have tripled, and today Camp Heart + Hands is entirely operated and staffed by Packard Children’s oncology physicians, social workers and more than 30 PICU nurses.

Swisher explained, “It’s special to come together with your colleagues outside of work. Each volunteer brings a unique contribution to camp, and every volunteer is equally valuable to this experience. I’m humbled and grateful these great people are sharing their weekend to help with this effort.”

Upon arrival, each family is paired with a nurse who also serves as their camp counselor and accompanies the family throughout the entire weekend. Once all campers are settled in, the nurses and kids break away from the parents and enjoy a movie night while the parents attend a support session led by a Jacob’s Heart support specialist.

This year, PICU nurse Tess Palin joined Camp Heart + Hands for the first time as a camp counselor and was paired with Grace Graff, 12, and her parents and sister. Palin, who quickly recognized the Graff family, had also been one of Grace’s nurses in the PICU while she was going through treatment last year for anaplastic ependymoma. She said, “This is an amazing time to connect with family in an environment where we can laugh, play, and step back and acknowledge all that they’ve gone through and that they’re not alone.”

The Graff family has attended camp for the last two years, and they are grateful for the support that the camp has provided them. Grace’s father, Steven, said, “Camp Heart + Hands feels like an extension of Packard Children’s. It’s a place where everyone understands each other, and it’s a chance for kids to just be kids.”

This year, Packard Children’s nurses decided to give even more. In place of receiving gifts for Nurses’ Week, they asked for the funds to be donated to Jacob’s Heart to support Camp Heart + Hands.


One Response to “Summer Fun for Packard Children’s Patients”

  1. KarlaArias

    Hi I have a suggestion lucile Packard hospital should do this type of things with the cardiac patients too I have my 4 year old name Leonardo Juan Arias Gonzalez who was born there on june 21 2015 he recently had heart surgery done there
    This would be amazing experience for all of the cardiac kids and family hope we can do it


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