Camp TLC for Terminally Ill Children

Tender, Loving Care

By Darren Buford

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2001.

Summertime in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, sounds like paradise — boating, swimming, fun in the sun. All good reasons why hospice nurse Tina Megason has returned the past four years. She and her tireless crew of volunteers transform a 40-acre campground into a rescue respite. No, this isn’t a spa getaway, nor is it a vacation spot for the rich and famous. Megason’s home-away-from-home is Camp TLC, a wellness center where therapy means relaxation and mental healing for children ages 6–18 with life-shortening illnesses. TLC is different than most camps that cater to the chronically or terminally ill; most are condition specific. There are camps for adolescents with muscular dystrophy. There are camps for youngsters with cancer. Camp TLC is unique because it accepts children who might otherwise fall through the cracks and be left out. The camp is a safehouse for those with HIV, cancer, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy — literally any condition.

Camp TLC also offers a break for the caregivers, those who dedicate themselves to these special individuals day-in and day-out, by accepting the siblings of those who are ill as well. This allows for a week of fun for the children and a week of rest for the parents. And though separation anxiety may be tougher on the parents than on the kids, the former understand their children are in the hands of qualified individuals who love and care about them. Camp TLC’s mission is to improve the quality of life for these children and to relieve them from the stress of doctors, regular treatment and their “normal” routine. Interestingly enough, massage has become an integral part of that healing process.

Flexible Mind/Flexible Body

Massage therapist Don Morrissey heard about Camp TLC quite by accident. Last year he was called by one of the camp’s phone solicitors seeking a financial contribution. Morrissey went above and beyond the call of duty and volunteered his massage services. “Hmm, I’m not sure they would want that, but then again, maybe they would,” replied the voice on the other end of the phone. Within a week, Morrissey received another call, this time confirming the camp would gratefully accept his offer.

Truth is, the timing was perfect. Megason was considering incorporating massage into the camp’s program because she was familiar with its rewards. “A lot of my campers have diseases that are very degenerative to their bodies,” she said. “Massage is so beneficial to them, not only therapeutically, but to give them better range of motion. To me, there’s also a psychological benefit: it’s comforting and relaxing. And it’s something most of these kids are not used to.”

Two years earlier, Megason had tried to introduce massage, but with only minimal success. Megason has since come to understand the first go-around didn’t work because the massage therapist also came to camp as a volunteer assigned to a child. “It took away from the experience because the therapist spent more time with her child than she did doing massage,” she said. The next year Megason passed on a therapist. Then, during fund-raising efforts and promotions in 2000, she became acquainted with Morrissey and signed him up.

Morrissey quickly learned the special touch required at Camp TLC. Imagine going to your next outcall appointment, and just as you arrive, you cross paths with someone who is leaving, crying. How do you enter? Do you go in at all or back away gracefully? Morrissey experienced a similar situation upon his arrival at Camp TLC. As he was setting up his equipment, he overheard one of the counselors say, “I’ll see you next year.” She then proceeded to break down because she realized many of the children will not be alive the following year. “That emotional outburst set the tone for the day,” said Morrissey. Emotions run high in such an environment. Morrissey said if he had not had clients before who had died, he might have been emotionally distraught.

But Morrissey came to the camp aware of the possible tribulations he might face. Though the camp certainly was different than his normal working atmosphere, he approached it with the Taoist concept of flexibility. “When you are born,” said Morrissey, “you are very flexible. Whichever way the wind blows, you go with it.” By knowing many different modalities, Morrissey was able to approach Camp TLC with a fluctuation uncommon in most practitioners. His training includes knowledge of Swedish massage, Ingham reflexology, Tai Kyo Zen Shiatsu, Karuna Reiki and many other modalities. Morrissey also has medical training, as well as experience as a medical photographer.

“I’ve massaged clients with AIDS, I’ve massaged clients with cancer. Having the gift of knowing lots of techniques allows me to do differing things,” he said. This knowledge comes in handy as precautionary measures are sometimes taken when working on those with chronic or terminal illnesses. Knowing a gentle modality like Reiki is extremely beneficial because touch is not always an option.

At Camp TLC, Morrissey worked on a young camper named Ryan who had a terminal seizure disorder. Ryan also was autistic, therefore his behavior could sometimes be violent, even to the point of inflicting bodily harm to himself. Because of his condition, Ryan was shy and reserved, and didn’t always like to be touched. While many of the other campers received massage from Morrissey, Ryan was more or less an observer on the sidelines, remaining aloof and restrained. However, after Morrissey finished bodywork on one child, Ryan scurried to the table and hopped on — an action quite out of character for him. Aware of his condition, Morrissey performed an energy massage. Ryan’s brother who was attending camp said Ryan’s eyes lit up and he looked more alive. The counselors were shocked at Ryan’s acceptance and seeming approval. “It was amazing what Don did,” said Megason. “After camp, I shared the experience with Ryan’s mother and she now has made arrangements for him to have massages at home.”

While at camp, Morrissey also introduced the children to Ortho-Bionomy — a system that incorporates innate bodily reflexes and introduces methods of self-correction through gentle positioning in an effort to relieve joint and muscle pain. “I would show the kids how they could work themselves with energy,” said Morrissey. “For instance, during internal surgery there can be a puss sore on the inside that needs to drain to the outside. Surgical tubing will be applied to create an exit hole. I would show the children to put one hand there and to take the other up to their energetic third eye, thus connecting through intuition to the part that hurts.” This non-forceful and indirect approach addresses acute pain as well as chronic conditions that might require more and longer processes of rehabilitation.

“Because I’m comfortable teaching children, they really enjoyed it when I allowed them to participate,” added Morrissey. “I showed them how to massage someone’s hand with certain stretches. They worked beside me.” Morrissey’s little apprentices even got the chance to work on one of the camp’s volunteers. “A few worked on a counselor’s feet, a couple on her ears, head and hands,” said Morrissey. “Although they enjoyed receiving massage, one of their highlights was learning something about how to perform it on others.”

Morrissey confirmed he will be returning to the camp again next year because he firmly believes in giving back his skills as a massage therapist and he feels others should do the same. Megason certainly was happy to hear the news. “We had to run him away last year,” she said. “We had to get the kids into bed, just so he could go home. Nobody wanted him to leave, including myself. Everyone asked, ‘Is he coming back?’ ”

Apparently, Morrissey was infected with the bug, just like so many others who have volunteered their time at Camp TLC and fallen in love with the kids. Megason tells of a woman and her husband who volunteered two years ago. “After camp, she called me and said, ‘I can’t function. I told my husband I want to sell our business and do this all the time’.” According to Megason, it is impossible to come to Camp TLC and not be changed for life.


For information about how to participate or volunteer, call 775/333-7357, or write to:
Camp TLC of Nevada, 1000 Telegraph Suite 2, Reno, Nevada 89502.