Gone camping: Burn patients soar to new heights

Patient Stories |



At Hoosier Burn Camp, scars are secondary to summer fun for Riley kids.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

She might not be a trapeze artist, but Sienna Partlow traverses the high-flying ropes course at Hoosier Burn Camp with the confidence of a 13-year-old girl who has nothing to lose.

Or nothing to fear.

Fifty feet above the expansive woods at this special summer camp in Brookston, Indiana, she pulls, pushes, swings, crawls and climbs her way through the “sky walker” course, safe in the knowledge that she will be caught if she falls.

That feeling of safety comes not only from the harness attached to her small frame, but also from the people around her – fellow campers and counselors who cheer for her every step of the way.

Sienna is one of 49 campers participating in this year’s Hoosier Burn Camp summer camp, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

All have suffered serious burn injuries at some point in their lives; most were treated at Riley Children’s Health, a partner in this annual weeklong escape from the city.

Here, they get to be “just one of the kids,” says Caitlin Dougherty, a longtime child life specialist in the burn unit at Riley who recently joined the team at Hoosier Burn Camp as program manager.

“I can’t say it any better than what one of our kids shared last night,” she recalled. In his words: “We’re not here because we wear the same shirts or the same shoes. We’re here because we wear the same scars. And here, we can be just who we are.”

Unlike at home, they don’t have other kids staring at them or peppering them with questions. Or even worse, wanting to touch their scars.

“It’s so important for these kids,” Dougherty said. “They get to be in a place where they can be a kid and where people love them for who they are.”

Hoosier Burn Camp was conceived by the Indiana Fire Marshal’s Office and Riley Hospital more than 25 years ago to help kids ages 8 to 18 heal emotionally and socially from serious burns.

The summer camp, housed at the YMCA’s Camp Tecumseh northwest of Indianapolis, is just one of many programs the organization offers throughout the year for burn survivors and their families. (Some lucky teens will be going white-water rafting in North Carolina this summer; others will be traveling to Alaska with the organization.)

The camp is free for participants. Fundraisers and other in-kind support remove the financial barrier for families.

This is Sienna’s third year at camp. She was burned at age 10 in a bonfire accident and remembers having a tough time in the hospital.

“I screamed at everyone at Riley,” she said.

She’s in a much better place now, pushing herself to get stronger. Activities like the ropes course, swimming, horseback riding, canoeing, archery, fishing, yoga, crafts and cooking all help stretch campers’ muscles – both physically and mentally.

Daniel Lynch, 18, says he keeps coming back to camp each year because he likes the family it creates.

As an older teen, he is participating in the Campers in Leadership Training program, with an eye on becoming a volunteer counselor in the future.

“It creates a positive environment and makes you feel really welcome,” said the aspiring firefighter/paramedic.

As he waited to start the ropes course, he admitted to being nervous.

“I’m not gonna lie. I’m kind of scared of heights, but we conquer our fears one at a time.”

He watched while Lexie Taylor, 18, conquered the course. The fellow Decatur Central High School graduate has been coming to camp for 10 years.

“I like to see all my friends,” she said.

Volunteers are the “secret sauce” that keeps the camp going every year, says Mark Koopman, executive director. Whether it’s area firefighters, nurses, videographers, counselors or cooks, those giving their time say it’s the best week of the summer.

Kelly Rowls has been coming to camp longer than any of the kids here have been alive. In fact, the Riley nurse has volunteered her time on the medical team since the first burn camp in 1999.

“This helps me stay good at my job,” the burn nurse said during a break for lunch. “I can see full circle from what I do there (working with burn patients at Riley) to here.”

Aries Smith, 16, Natalie Maled, 15, and Mikalen Isbell, 16, all from the Indianapolis area, have spent their fair share of time at Riley. For Aries, who suffered burns at age 2 and again at 10, this is her eighth year at camp.

She and her two friends, who met last year when they stayed in the same camp cabin, were ready to climb into canoes on a 90-degree day last week.

Aries and Natalie ended up tipping their canoe in the middle of the lake, but there was no panic. Both know how to swim, and they were wearing life jackets. They simply swam their canoe back to shore, grateful for the chance to cool off.

“I just really love the environment here,” Natalie said. “You’re able to connect with people who have been through the same thing, and it’s really fun.”

That’s one takeaway for Aries – “Definitely you find out you’re not alone,” the teen said.

“When you go through something like this, you learn the strength you have,” Natalie added.

Riley child life specialist Taylor Cox recently moved over to the burn unit to take over Dougherty’s position there. Coming to camp this year was a no-brainer for her.

As she rounded up kids who were participating in a Top Chef-style competition outside a cabin, she marveled at the toughness of burn survivors.

“It’s such a family, and I wanted to be part of that outside the hospital as well,” she said. “It’s so rewarding for me to see the other side of things. In the hospital, it’s traumatic. This is a traumatic injury that they go through. It’s life-changing and we’re in the thick of it in the hospital.

“It’s so great to come out here and see these kids being kids and getting to do all of the things any other kid would get to do,” Cox added. “Being part of making that experience possible for them is just incredibly humbling and rewarding.”

Learn more at www.hoosierburncamp.org.

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org