Getting Diagnosed with a Chronic Illness Made Me a Better Camp Director

By Katrina Dearden

Director, Rock Hill Camp

Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson

During my second summer as a Camp Director, I began to notice some unexplained joint pain.  It progressed throughout the summer until it got to the point where I found myself cradling my arm in tears outside the dining hall trying to open the door.  By the time I got a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis the following February, I was in so much pain that reaching across my body to shut off the alarm in the morning was unbearable. Too many mornings the alarm would snooze itself, not because I slept through it but because it took me that long to make my body roll over (and I won’t even get into the act of actually sitting up).  

It’s hard to learn that you are sick with a chronic illness; unlike every other time you have been sick or injured in life, this time there is no amount of medication or surgery or recovery time to get you back to normal.  There is no cure. You have to learn that you have a new normal. They tell you to mourn the loss of your health as you would a loved one. So I began my healing journey.

Through medications and adapting a version of the paleo diet and lifestyle, I have gained back so much of my life.  I will never be fully back to who I was pre-diagnosis, but I am pretty close. In some ways I think I am even better than before.  I’m certainly a better Camp Director. I’m sharing some of what I learned on this journey with you so that you too can reap the benefits without the physical pain.  

Stress management:

I now feel stress so much sooner than before, because now I feel it in my bones (specifically my right elbow always gives the first warning, thanks friend!).  When you feel stress sooner you can react sooner. The motivation to remain calm is much stronger when you know that if you don’t, there’s a good chance a pain flare will be set off that can last for days.  

I was always a very stressed-out person. I wanted everything to go perfectly, but now I am much better about choosing my battles and deciding what is worth it to worrying about (hint: it’s not much).  I have learned more methods to reduce anxiety and I make sure to spend more time outside. There will always be work to get done in the office. But it turns out the longer you are in the office, the more work appears.  You can leave, I promise. What needs to get done will get done. Since I am now a calmer person, staff are more likely to come to me with questions so we can figure out how to handle a situation before it becomes a problem.  When you seem stressed, staff don’t want to come up and “bother you” with their questions, no matter how many times you have told them they should. The problem they had questions about ends up escalating until it becomes a bigger issue to deal with.  So take a breath, step outside, and play a game with the campers. Remember why you chose this job to begin with. Let the call go to voicemail. You will answer it eventually, and you will be in a better frame of mind when you do.

Prioritizing health:

On a plane, they tell you if the oxygen masks drop down to fix your own first before you can help anyone else.  I always knew this analogy, but I didn’t really understand it until I lived it. I know that if I go into flare I won’t be able to help anybody, and I truly love my job at camp.  In order to keep my body healthy enough to continue in this line of work, I had to prioritize my health. No more saying “I’ll sleep in September,” because now if I don’t get enough sleep, my joints deteriorate at a more rapid pace, and once that happens it happens, it can’t be reversed.  

I set a strict schedule to leave the office by a reasonable time at night to go to bed (except, of course, if an emergency comes up).  At first, this was difficult for me. I felt like I needed to be the last one to leave at night and the first one in every morning. But once I communicated my plan and started to leave at night, the rest of the office started to go to bed at a more reasonable time as well.  Turns out they felt like because I was still working, they should be too! Which comes back to my point from before: as long as you are working, work will come up. So you can’t stay until the work is done because it never is. The important stuff already got done. How do I know?  Because that stuff you handled right as it came up. That’s how camp works. So go to bed; your body will thank you and you’ll have a clearer head to jump into the work with tomorrow.

I also make sure I eat a healthy diet.  I cleared away all the unhealthy snacks that we all reach for at camp, and I replaced them with grapes, carrot sticks, and other healthy options.  If it’s in reach, that’s what you are going to eat. Nutrition is something that truly slowed down the progression of my disease, gave me my energy back, and made me feel almost back to normal.  But that’s a whole separate post on its own (drink your bone broth kids!).

Asking for help:

As Camp Directors, sometimes we get caught up thinking we have to have all the answers all the time.  “Don’t let them see you sweat.” I no longer have that luxury.

My first summer living with my illness I tried to hide it.  I only told the leadership team and even then, I didn’t tell them much.  I was afraid they would think I couldn’t do my job. As you can imagine, this didn’t go well.  

For the first time in my life there were parts of my job that I could not physically do at times (I was very much still figuring out meds and I hadn’t truly embraced the nutrition as much as I should have). As much as I thought I was hiding what was going on, everyone could read the pain on my face, making it more of an issue than it was.

Flash forward to my second summer post-diagnosis.  This time I fit my personal story into staff training.  I made a whole session on using weaknesses as strengths.  I got personal. I cried (I didn’t mean to). I wrote what I felt were my limitations down on an index card and threw it into the fire.  I invited the staff to do the same. We shared our stories. I learned some things about some of the staff I had worked with for years and had no idea what they struggled with.  Because we shared, the whole staff felt more connected as a community. We talked about why it’s important to ask for help and why this was something we wanted to model for our campers, and that summer went so much better.  Now on the mornings when I was walking a little funny, staff knew why and would just quietly take whatever I was carrying from my hands so I didn’t have to struggle down the hill. Or they would hold a line a little longer so I could catch up without campers recognizing that anything was different.  We all did little things for everyone else on the team as well to help with their battle that otherwise we wouldn’t have known they were fighting. We developed a new level of understanding that made camp better for the whole community which absolutely left a positive impact on our campers. I plan to do the same exercise again this year, and you should, too.

Empathizing with camper parents:

This one is just pure bonus.  I always had an answer for every parent concern and I thought I was great at explaining our procedures to parents, specifically for food allergies or dietary concerns, and for medication passes. Now that I have lived that lifestyle I have such a deeper understanding of the questions.  Not that my answers before weren’t correct, they were. I still describe the same processes, but now parents can hear it in my voice that I truly understand it. Empathy is just deeper than sympathy. I can honestly tell them I too have dietary concerns and the kitchen accommodates me, so I know they can accommodate your camper.  I can lean into the kid and tell them that we can be buddies walking up to the kitchen door for special plates. I can hear relief in the parents’ voices that I never got before. I’ve even had multiple families sign up for camp specifically because of these conversations that I wouldn’t have gotten to sign up before. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is one you can learn from me without experiencing it yourself.  Guess I just get to keep it as my personal win.

So breathe deep, get some sleep, eat good food and ask for help.  Your camp will thank you.

-The Chronic Camp Director

Katrina Dearden is the director of Rock Hill Camp in Mahopac, New York, which is part of Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson. She completed the first semester of The Summer Camp Society in the Fall of 2017 and is currently part of our second semester cohort. Contact her at kmzdearden@gmail.com

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