11/12/2013 12:33 pm ET

Medicine: Finding Meaning Outside the Classroom


Within the first week of medical school, we dissected real human hearts from our cadavers. Facts presented in lecture streamed through our minds as we held this organ in our bare hands: coronary arteries supply the heart, semilunar valves prevent backflow of blood and trabeculae carneae muscles line the ventricle walls.

Lost in all the memorization and constant studying, we felt as though our real purpose for joining the medical field was obscured. Medicine, for both of us, does not mean endless poring over a textbook. Rather, our career choice is driven by the desire to connect with patients and their families and to provide exceptional care to both.

We discovered this passion during our undergraduate years through Camp Kesem (CK) MIT. This student organization is one of 54 active chapters nationwide that provides a free, annual summer camp experience and a year-round support network for kids of ages six to 18, each of whom has at least one parent with cancer.

Both of us stumbled into CK through luck. Upperclassmen encouraged us to join CK as soon as we set foot on campus. They shared countless anecdotes about how courageous the kids were, how much the kids looked up to them, and very simply, how much fun they had playing with the campers. We were hesitant at first. How could we relate and provide emotional comfort to a camper when neither of us had a parent with cancer? Nevertheless, heeding the advice of our upperclassmen, we joined. Here was a chance to kick back, relax and engage in pure, camp fun.

From the start, it was clear how much of an impact CK made on cancer-affected families. For parents, CK was a chance for them to set aside parenting responsibilities for a week. Instead, they could focus on their own health by getting some extra rest. For campers, it was a chance to bond with a community of other kids who understood, implicitly, their many thoughts and fears.

These concerns manifested in different questions at the beginning of the week, often depending on a camper's age. A six-year-old asked, "Did my Dad get cancer because I screamed at him?" while a teen camper took a heartbreakingly practical approach, "If Dad dies, how will Mom support the family?" There were more universal sentiments as well, including, "Is all of this my fault?"

Many of these fears and questions were voiced during the oncology session, which offered campers a safe environment to have their cancer-related queries answered by an oncologist. The oncologist served not only as a physician, but also as an individual with a deeply humane understanding of how this disease affects a patient's loved ones. In essence, the oncologist created a much-needed bridge for these children between the biological realities associated with the disease and its social effects on a family.

The support provided by the oncology session was complemented by Empowerment, a three- to four-hour intimate all-camp ceremony. During this event, every camper and counselor has an opportunity to share his or her personal story. As each story is heard, a powerful sense of community and support blankets the entire group. For both of us, Empowerment has been among the most touching and memorable events we have ever experienced.

Typically, counselors who have had a family member battle cancer start off by recounting their own stories. Slowly, campers of all ages began sharing their personal experiences in a raw, honest and emotional manner. We were amazed at how many campers spoke up. While sitting next to teenage campers and college students, even six-year-old children showed an enormous sense of maturity well beyond their years.

Several campers described how their mothers or fathers have battled cancer, not once but two or more times, highlighting their parents' inspiring spirits. Other campers shared stories of having lost a parent and trying hard not to cry in order to stay strong for their younger siblings. Many offered thoughts on how much CK means to them and how the CK community has helped them heal.

At the end of Empowerment, tears and hugs inundated the room as clusters of campers and counselors comforted each other. Understanding that they were not alone in watching their parent battle cancer created an unbelievable sense of family amongst all the campers. At one camp, campers and counselors received yarn to tie around their wrists after they each spoke, creating a physical manifestation representing the deep-seated emotional bond formed by the Empowerment experience. At another camp, campers and counselors came together after Empowerment in laughter, reminiscing over fun camp stories and jokes. This highlights the fact that illness can affect patients and families in many different ways, not only through tears and sadness but also through smiles and optimism -- a form of healing.

Every story reminds us of how parental illness significantly impacts each camper's childhood, growth and maturity. In a unique and magical way, CK provided much-needed emotional support to these children; this was, in a sense, a new kind of medical experience that cared not only for patients (i.e. campers' parents) but also patients' families (i.e. campers). As future physicians, we aspire to stay connected to social support networks like CK and to always remember what we learned as CK counselors: medicine is never about a single person or disease but rather how illness impacts the patient's entire life and family.

If you would like to learn more about MIT Camp Kesem, please email or visit here.


Hamsika Chandrasekar, is currently a first-year medical student at Stanford Medical School.

Ambar Mehta currently attends Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.