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The Poetic Camp Liberté Experience

By: Ali Shahbaz, H. BMSc

Camper: “Are you going to be putting on the creams
Me: “Yes, if that’s okay, I’ll help you apply them
Camper: “What’s your name?”
Me: “I’m Ali
Camper: “Tu parler Francais?”
Me: “
Oui, je parle un peu le français

We closed the door to allow for privacy and I helped apply the standard topicals prescribed by his pediatric dermatologist back home.  There was silence in the cabin, as a young boy who is so greatly afflicted by severe psoriasis he shared and let me into a world very few were allowed to see, to me what seemed overwhelming for a child – was his daily routine regimen.

Me [15 minutes later]: “Parfait, nous avons fini”

Camper: “Merci beaucoup … Ali – ” [Hug].

It was a gentle reminder of why I came to Camp Liberté – for these children.

There were two major themes I could focus on when thinking about Camp Liberté: there was efficiency, and then there was poetry. Yes, one thing I was struck by as a medical volunteer was the countless hours of planning that has gone into making this week a reality, by Dr. Danielle Marcoux and the entire Board of Directors and what we could only describe as logistics; and, the stark reality of how encompassing it can become. The days, filled with activities that were scheduled diligently throughout the day, began with my fellow medical volunteers waking up at the break of dawn and commenced with dragonflies lighting up our walk back to our cabin.

And then there’s poetry.  It’s a main reason many of us, I presume, went into medicine in the first place, and it stays with you, moves you, and changes you. I must have spent more time behind the scenes making sure the campers arrived safe and enjoyed each activity that they desired. But none of it made a dent. No, what I remember is the children; the emotionally salient encounters with each camper remains crisp. The early ones carve a deep imprint, and each with its own significance being carried further. These children have taught me in every possible way. About this business we call doctoring. About life. You recall, and forget and recall again why you chose this career in the first place. There is poetry all around, if you open your eyes to it. As a medical student, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees, but Camp Liberté, rebuffed the forces that threatened to jade me and remain clear, appreciative of what was around me, grateful and humbled by the role I was in. Although, it is easier said than done.

Now, as I return from Camp Liberté, passing the halfway checkpoint of my medical school marathon, my goals are humble. From wanting to learn everything possibly to the one goal riding above it all: to do good. I want to do right by my patients. These children have shown me, there is so much you can pour into patient care. The children recognized, empathized and became collegial towards one another by embracing their unique individualities and thriving together. It was this force of acceptance, respect and compassion that propelled me through the week and it is that hope that will sustain me as I return to being a clerk and beyond. Hope – it has been with me through it all: through the long days filled with new outdoor activities, through the late night campfires or movie nights. Inspiring me. Grounding me. And so you sit by the bedside of a young camper and explain and re-explain what they are feeling is okay as they venture out to be away from home for the first time, and so you demonstrate patience and compassion as each one shares what cutaneous disorder they have.  You listen attentively; shifting your paradigm at how strong child morality truly is – inspiring you to become only a fraction as strong. Art, literature, poetry, theatre and cinema help us keep the patient’s perspective before our eyes, but nothing is as good as really listening to our own patients, sympathetically hearing their life story, and learning what they have to teach you. And nothing is as rewarding. There is a meaning behind all of what we do, and it is this: I will do right by my patients.  As I was invited to be a medical volunteer for Camp Liberté, I recalled advice that resonated with me deeply:

–There is a way we get our bearings. When you’re in a fog, get a compass. I have one – and you do too. We got our compass the day we decided to be healers. Our compass is a question, and it will point us true north: How will it help the patient? —

To every camper, I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the week: thank you for letting me be involved in your care and time at Camp Liberté. Thank you for your teaching, for your lessons on humanity. In return, I will spend my career trying to do right by you.

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