Camp Kemo brings kids with cancer together

HONEA PATH — Jonathan Hithe lost his left leg in February. The 17-year-old football player from Spring Valley High School found out a week before the surgery that it needed to be cut off.

Last year, Jonathan was injured at work after several heavy boxes fell on his knee, causing it to balloon to twice its normal size. He visited orthopedics and tried physical therapy but knew something was wrong when the swelling still didn’t go down.

Jonathan’s mom took him to the hospital when he was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma — a type of bone cancer — in December, just two months before his leg was removed.

By February, his leg muscles had atrophied, and he had significant nerve damage.

Now, Jonathan has a prosthetic leg that he’s still getting used to while he gets chemotherapy treatment nearly every week.

While recovering at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, Jonathan got to know other kids going through chemotherapy.

“They were like, ‘Are you going to camp?’ And I was like, huh?” Jonathan said. “They finally persuaded me, and I’m here now.”

Everyone at Camp Kemo has one characteristic in common — they’ve either been diagnosed with cancer or have a family member who has.

Andrew Simpson, a counselor at Camp Kemo who goes by Klondike, said the camp is a bonding experience for everyone.

“The reason we’re here sucks, but it’s the thread that kind of binds us all together,” Simpson said. “It makes us all part of the same thing.”

Camp Kemo was started 39 years ago by a nurse and a child life specialist at the Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia.

“They felt like it was something that our patients were really needing, a place that they could go and just be themselves and be with other children experiencing the same things,” said Cassy Shea, Camp Kemo programs coordinator.

It started as a day camp before morphing into a full-on horseback riding, cabin-sharing, rock wall climbing summer camp for children at the hospital and their siblings.

The hospital is where Jonathan met 18-year-old D.J. Fisher, who’s been coming to Camp Kemo for three years.

At the camp, everyone knows D.J. — his infectious laugh carries across the campgrounds.

“I was a big-mouth as soon as I got here,” D.J. said.

D.J. was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of bone cancer, in his spine on Nov. 12, 2015.

This past December, D.J. relapsed and is again receiving chemotherapy treatments.

“I basically lived in the hospital,” D.J. said.

Before cancer, D.J. played lacrosse at his high school and had a scholarship at Limestone College, which he has since lost — he had to stop playing after doctors put a port in his chest.

But at camp, D.J. doesn’t worry about the future or the outside world.

“This is probably the easiest week of my life,” D.J. said. “We look forward to this week.”

The camp is free to the children, who are monitored by doctors and nurses with the hospital. Some children have to leave during the week for chemotherapy before coming back, which hospital staff are there to transport them to and from.

More than 100 kids descended on River Oaks Retreat last week, a 61-acre campsite on the Saluda River in Honea Path.

Within the first day, groups of kids started falling in step with each other, joking, running and laughing — thoughts of cancer pushed to the back of their minds. Many of them had rows of beaded bracelets stacked on their arms — one for every year they’ve been to the camp.

For 18-year-old Sterran Dupree, Camp Kemo was the first time she’d been away from home when she was 14. Like D.J., Sterran heard about camp while getting treatment in the children’s hospital.

Sterran was diagnosed with mesothelioma after she passed out at school in 2014. A CT scan showed she had blood clots in her lungs, and after a full body scan, doctors found a tumor in her abdomen.

Sterran said coming to camp is bittersweet — bitter because she knows everyone at camp is going through something like her, but sweet because she’s made lifelong friends with many of them.

“In a way it makes me feel sad, because no person should ever have to go through that at all,” Sterran said. “But God always makes a way.”

The camp has a Memorial Rock Garden they sit around at the end of camp to honor the kids who didn’t make it.

Shea said the weeklong getaway is a game changer for patients and their siblings.

“You’ll see these kids that when they’re in-patient in the hospital or when they first spend time with us in the clinic, they’re usually shy and reserved, and even if they’re a little bit more talkative and outgoing, there’s still a sense of reservation,” Shea said. “It’s a huge leap of faith for our parents, but for our kids, it provides them an opportunity to just be a kid again.”

Because of Camp Kemo, D.J. has decided to pursue child life work and work with kids who have cancer at the University of South Carolina.

“I love these kids,” D.J. said. “I knew nothing about this before I got sick.”

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