Leukemia survivor finds fun, friends, normality at summer camp
June 12, 2013
Elizabeth Ochoa, a leukemia survivor, prepares for archery at Camp Star Trails in 2011.
CORPUS CHRISTI - To say that Elizabeth Ochoa is excited about going to summer camp next week is an understatement. On June 16, the 9-year-old will depart with other cancer patients from Driscoll Children's Hospital for her fifth trip to Camp Star Trails in Burton.
"I like swimming, meeting new friends and art," Elizabeth said with wide-eyed enthusiasm. "We get to go canoeing and fishing. The best part of it is the hot tub. I like the food too."
Camp Star Trails is hosted at Camp for All, a camp for children and adults with chronic illnesses or disabilities and their families. Driscoll Children's Hospital organizes the yearly trip for cancer patients ages 5-12 and their siblings, and funding comes from the annual Six Points Kiwanis Club Apple Sale.
Elizabeth was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 2, said her mother, Marilou Ochoa. She had become fatigued, her legs were bruised and she couldn't walk or play. After consulting with her pediatrician, Elizabeth's family took her to Driscoll Children's Hospital, where she began chemotherapy treatment.
"At first we had a feeling of panic because we didn't know what to expect," Ochoa said. "But the oncologists at Driscoll were great. They explained everything to us and lifted our spirits."
Elizabeth lost her hair completely three times due to chemotherapy treatment, her mother said. Now in her third year of being cancer-free, she has a full head of hair and a constant smile.
Cancer treatment and hospitalization can significantly curtail regular childhood activities, said hematologist/oncologist Cris Johnson, MD, medical director of Driscoll's Cancer & Blood Disorders Center. Summer camp allows kids to catch up on those experiences.
"At camp, you're a camper, not a patient," Dr. Johnson said. "It gives these children the opportunity to be kids and to focus on their abilities instead of their disabilities. They're supported by other children who understand what they're going through. They form lasting friendships and look forward to seeing each other every year."
Besides making new friends at Camp Star Trails next week, Elizabeth said she's looking forward to seeing a friend she made at Driscoll who was also being treated for cancer.
Elizabeth's older sisters have gone to camp with her twice, Ochoa said. Like Elizabeth, they enjoyed making new friends and interacting with young people who could relate to them. Sibling inclusion is important when a family is focusing on a child with cancer, Dr. Johnson said.
"When their brother or sister is in clinic for treatment, they're often in school and don't have the chance to meet the siblings of other cancer patients. Camp allows them to form a peer group with this shared experience."
Although Ochoa misses Elizabeth when she's at camp, she said the annual week away from home has helped her daughter become more independent because she has to remember to brush her hair and teeth and take a bath every day.
Brushing and bathing aren't at the top of Elizabeth's mind as camp approaches, however.
"At the end of the week, we have a campfire and we make a list of what we wish for," she said. "We hold hands in a circle, they say our name and we throw our wishes into the fire. Then we pop fireworks.
"When we get home, I feel like I want to go back again because I miss everybody."
What: Driscoll cancer patients depart for Camp Star Trails
When: 9 a.m. arrival, 10 a.m. departure Sunday, June 16
Where: Driscoll Children's Hospital Day Surgery & Rehabilitation Building, 3533 S. Alameda St.