Tragedy & Healing

At about 9 a.m. on August 4, 2004, the State of New Hampshire's Disaster Behavioral Health Coordinator received a call stating that on August 3 there had been a tragic death of a 13-year-old camper at Camp Hale, which is located on Squam Lake in Sandwich, N.H.

The camp, consisting of 61 campers and 18 staff (mostly camp counselors), provides daily structure and a wilderness experience for inner city youth, primarily from the Boston area.

Camp Hale has been in existence for over 100 years. Most of the campers have witnessed trauma on the streets of Boston but did not expect tragedy to infiltrate their camp experience.

Apparently, while on a routine hike, a camper had been separated from the larger group. A camp counselor, demonstrating courage and commitment, stayed with him as they encountered a bear. The young camper panicked and ran. He then had difficulty breathing.

The camp counselor radioed for assistance and provided CPR. The New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game arrived, along with a local rescue squad, where they continued with life savings measures but to no avail as the child died upon arrival at a local hospital.

It was clear that this event would have a devastating impact on his family, friends, campers and staff. The immediate response to meet the emotional/behavioral health needs of persons affected by tragic events typically comes from the local community mental health center.

These days, the mental health centers resources are strapped and they contacted the state to request activation of the North Country's disaster behavioral health response team.

These teams of volunteer behavioral health professionals have recently been trained in disaster/critical incident response. A team member who lived in the area was sent to the camp to assess the emotional impact of the incident and help determine which behavioral health services would be appropriate to meet the needs of both the campers and staff.

A decision was made to activate team members who lived in proximity to Camp Hale. About eight team members responded and committed to provide assistance over the coming days. Team members had experience working with adolescents, had been trained in critical incident stress debriefing or related grief/trauma work.

One of our team members has had experience with a sudden death team and agreed to work individually with the counselor who was with the boy at the time of the incident. The camp typically resolves issues and communicates important messages during the evening campfire. It was during the campfire that the campers learned of their fellow camper's death. The Disaster Behavioral Health Team (DBHRT) provided a compassionate presence and provided assistance with individuals on an as-needed basis.

A team member who was at the camp into the evening hours spent a good amount of time working with the counselor who was with the boy at the time of the incident. He and three or four other camp counselors were having mixed feelings about whether to remain at camp or to go home. Camp staff indicated that if this were to occur, the camp might have to close prematurely due to lack of staffing.

Copies of some handout materials regarding coping with tragic death were made available to the campers, their families and staff.

As normal routines were re-introduced to the camp community the campers began to regain their enthusiasm and spirit. It was clear that this community was on the road to healing.

A brief ceremony in which the camp flag was lowered to half-mast in honor of the deceased camper was conducted a few days after the incident. The camp administrator requested a behavioral health presence on the Saturday family day on which there would be a brief memorial service with families present.

The camp nurse reported that the mood of the camp was much improved and the four counselors who had expressed a desire to leave would now be staying. Much of this can be attributed to the DBHRT members who worked closely with this group.

DBHRT members continued to meet with families, camp counselors and campers upon request. No formal groups or educational presentations were made.

Mostly, these behavioral health professionals just listened and talked about coping and grief. Handouts such as Self-Care and What to Look for in Your Child were given to family members.

According to camp staff, the day went very well. Later that day, the campers painted rocks in tribute to the deceased camper and lined the path that leads to the council fire. They also wrote letters to his mother.

Behavioral health services were also made available to those camp staff and campers who attended the funeral services, which were held in Boston.

Tragic events such as the one at Camp Hale can happen anywhere. For many campers this may have been their first encounter with death and grieving. For others it was a reminder of the world of loss and trauma with which they were all too familiar.

One thing was clear, however. A small community such as a school or a camp can during times of trouble come together to support each other in the healing process.

One of the team members who responded and provided behavioral health services had this to say, "In today's world of conflict, violence and racial division, Camp Hale is a model for all of us. We can work together, respect each other, and help our children make these values a part of their lives. Camp Hale is a very special place."

Camp Hale encountered a risk that could not be mitigated, and this incident demonstrates that a camp can be impacted by an emergency of any type at any time. However, the camp had trained its counselors well and was able to work through it as much as can be possible during such a tragedy.

It's important that all camps have a well thought out, coordinated and practiced emergency response plan. An important part of the plan is knowing what resources are available from the local and state governments and the private sector to support a camp's response and recovery efforts.

Bryan BuchkoComment