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Happy Campers

It’s been nineteen years since I last stepped foot on the sandy pine straw of Camp Winona, hidden in the muggy depths of Ocala National Forest. That’s where I spent two summers at FCCYD (Florida Camp for Children and Youth With Diabetes). Now, thanks in no small part to Facebook, some of those memories are flooding back. But not as many as I’d like.

For most of us who’ve lived with diabetes since childhood, d-camp is a familiar rite of passage. It’s where most of us went to have a safe summer camp experience, to trade meter-rigging and logbook-faking secrets with our diabetic peers, and to give our parents a break for a few weeks.

I only consider how weird diabetes camp must seem when I bring the subject up among people who don’t have diabetes.

“Diabetes camp?” they always ask. “What do you do at diabetes camp, sit around and prick your fingers?”

“It’s just like regular camp,” I usually respond. “Except every once in a while, someone passes out in the lake.”

It may be kind of dark, but for me, it’s true. Diabetes camp was everything I’d been led to expect that “normal” kids experienced at camp. We had archery, swimming, ropes courses, crafts, oppressive heat and humidity, rustic cabins named after woodland creatures, sunburns, dances and skit nights.

The main difference was that we all shared a disease. But because it was so familiar to all of us — especially the med students, doctors, nurses and PWDs who served as counselors — we were able to take things like, say, passing out in the lake in stride.

Part of the luxury of diabetes camp was having the freedom to exhaust yourself on your own terms, without some well-meaning adult stopping to ask if you should be swimming so much. The theme of FCCYD was “I Can Handle It,” and it was a phrase we were all expected to live by while we were at camp, and hopefully, for decades afterward.

That’s not to say that it was a complete free-for-all. Blood sugar checks were frequent, and so too were impromptu feasts of undersweetened Kool-Aid and granola bars. (I still can’t bite into a Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey bar without recalling the smell of a lakewater-damp beach towel.) None of us was allowed to fall asleep for the night with a blood sugar under 140. I remember watching a counselor tiptoe through our Lynx cabin in the dark, pricking a camper’s fingertip while she slept, and then nudging her awake to eat one more granola bar.

The aim was to keep our blood sugars on the high side of normal at all times, which inevitably led to quite a few episodes of high blood sugars for all of us and, consequently, ketone testing. For reasons I can’t clearly remember (guilt? inconvenience?), some campers were always trying to find someone else to pee in a cup for them.

There’s one bizarre trait of diabetes camp that’s coming back to me now that we live in a locate-anyone-anywhere age: as a person diagnosed with diabetes relatively late in my childhood career, I missed out on a lot of d-camp awesomeness. I sensed it back then — there were solid clans of d-campers who’d been coming back to FCCYD every year since they were five. They kept in touch during the school year, and seemed able to pick up right where they’d left off. And now that there’s an official FCCYD Reunion Page, I find myself clicking through dozens of pictures of sweaty, smiley diabetic children — and they’re all before my time.

We were all close during those summers, and I remember having some of the best times of my life there. But I blame my recent alienation — and the fact that I never had a whirlwind d-camp romance — on the fact that I arrived to the party a little too late.

I realize how ridiculous it is to wish that I’d been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes even earlier than I was, but sometimes I can’t help it. As I’ve learned in the Diabetes Online Community, diabetes (among other chronic diseases) has a way of cementing relationships. It’s an instant friend-maker — I just want more friends.

I won’t be able to meet my fellow Florida D-campers at the end of the month, but I’ll be thinking about them just as much as I have during the last two decades. I plan on carrying the d-camp spirit to Friends For Life this summer. I can only hope no one loses consciousness in the pool.

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