Summer Camp Gives Nurse Insight into Challenges Facing Patients’ Children

Erin Silva, RN
Erin Silva, RN

Erin Silva, RN, BSN, has formed very strong connections with her adult patients at Dana-Farber/New Hampshire Oncology-Hematology (Dana-Farber/NHOH) in Londonderry, New Hampshire. However, the 30-year-old oncology nurse rarely saw the full impact of cancer on their children.

After a stint at summer camp, she has a much better idea.

Silva spent a week in late August as nurse for the MIT chapter of Camp Kesem, a non-profit, student-run organization that offers free camping experiences to children ages 6-16 whose parents are living with or died from cancer. “Kesem” means “magic” in Hebrew, and the network of 63 Kesem camps throughout the United States mixes traditional camp activities, like sports and arts and crafts, with special bonding exercises to bring magic to families coping with cancer.

While at Camp Kesem MIT, held in Hartford, Maine, Silva fixed the bumps and bruises for about 50 boys and girls, along with helping them work through much more intense challenges.

“One night we had an empowerment campfire,” explains Silva. “The counselors stood up and told why they went to camp; some of them had lost a parent to cancer. Because they saw their counselors talking, many of the kids felt comfortable enough to stand up and share their stories as well. One 7-year-old girl talked about losing her mother at age four, and kids who were the oldest of several siblings spoke of taking on more of a parenting role. I saw such strength from the kids, it was incredible.”

Erin having some fun at Camp Kessem
Erin having some fun at camp. Photo credit: Camp Kesem

Every Kesem camper and counselor has a nickname, and Silva was dubbed “Wonder Woman” because she has a keychain with the superhero’s likeness. “It was embarrassing at first,” she says with a laugh, “but I think it fit my role as camp nurse, helping make everyone better.”

A Merrimack, New Hampshire, native, Silva was first introduced to oncology nursing when she spent a day shadowing her mother, a case manager for an oncology floor at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center. She instantly knew she wanted to pursue it as a career, and says she loves bonding with her Dana-Farber/NHOH patients because of their optimism.

Erin works on arts & crafts at Camp Kessem
Erin works on arts & crafts. Photo credit: Camp Kesem

“They are the most positive people I have ever met,” she says. “It’s uplifting to me to be part of their lives, and helping bring about even more positivity in them is something special. They teach me every day.”

Now she has an increased understanding of what her patients’ children may be going through.

“It’s amazing how much pressure and responsibility a lot of these kids feel to help take care of their parents,” says Silva, who hopes to reprise her camp role next summer. “Maybe by helping my patients understand this more I can make things easier for everyone.”