By Laura McAlister
A childhood illness can take its toll on the entire family. Dr. David Askenazi knows. He’s fortunate that his own three children are healthy, but those he spends time with on a daily basis as an assistant professor of pediatrics with Children’s Hospital Division of Nephrology and Transplantation aren’t so lucky.
David’s patients come from all over the state, range in age from a few days old to teenagers and are on dialysis. Many have received organ transplants, which is how David got involved with Camp BRIDGES. The camp aims to help children who have had or need an organ transplant and their families. David got involved with BRIDGES, which stands for Building Responsibility and Independence, Developing Goals and Establishing Success, in 2005. Since then he’s served as vice president and president of the board as well as development chairman. But one of his favorite roles with the camp is one a little less official. It’s that of helping out fellow fathers.
“I’m in charge of the dads’ day at the camp,” he said. “Dads and moms face different challenges when it comes to dealing with a child with medical needs. My goal is to give dads a place to share what’s been going on with them since the diagnosis and the challenges.”
Camp BRIDGES hosts two camps at Lake Martin’s Children’s Harbor each year: one for teens with transplants and another for the children with transplants and their families. Both programs are free to participants. This year’s family camp is set for the July 4th weekend. About 180 participants are expected. Activities at the family camp include boating, family meals, social events and counseling.
The counseling is where David’s dads’ day program comes in. Often it’s difficult, he said, for dads to express themselves, and the time among other fathers with the same problems has proved helpful. “Moms, in some ways, have an easier time sharing their experiences,” he said. “Dads tend to hold things inside. It’s not cool for dads to talk about stuff, so my job is to provide them a space to feel comfortable.”
Since most of the children at Camp BRIDGES are learning to live with their transplants, David said he also helps fathers understand their role in this.
“That’s really one of the biggest challenges,” he said. “I work with the dads on how they can provide a safety net. We want these children to get independent on their medical care, but we also want them to know that if they miss a day of taking their meds, they could lose their kidney.”
In addition to talking about challenges, David also takes the dads on some “dadly” outings, like fishing or bowling. One of the best parts about the camp to family members, though, is knowing they’re not alone. David said it’s not uncommon for parents, even his dads, to cry during the counseling sessions.
“I get a bad reputation of making dads cry,” he said. “But it’s kind of my job.” Jeremy Hicks, 2, attended the camp last year with his parents and will be there again this summer. While Jeremy liked swimming and sleeping the best, his mom Tessa Hicks said it was the interaction with other parents whose children had similar illnesses that really helped her and Jeremy’s dad. “We really thought it was nice to meet other parents like us,” she said. “There also were kids there who have had their transplants a lot longer than Jeremy, so it really gave us hope.”
For David, Camp BRIDGES has also helped him. He and his family attend each year, and as his children get older they volunteer more and more during the camp. He said it’s both humbling and rewarding, especially knowing that the trip might be the only family vacation for many of the participants.
Thanks to donations and fundraisers, the family camp is free to all family members. Tom Williams Audi will host one such fundraiser June 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The event includes refreshments, entertainment and a silent auction. All funds raised will go to Camp BRIDGES. For more information on the fundraiser or the camp, visit www.campbridges.org.