Image for SeriousFun’s Nursing Advisor, Emo Castle, Talks Career & Life at Camp

SeriousFun’s Nursing Advisor, Emo Castle, Talks Career & Life at Camp

When you think of medical professionals, you probably picture white coats and clinical settings. But being a medical professional looks, well, a little bit different at our favorite place on earth.

Meet Emo Castle. She’s been involved with SeriousFun Children’s Network for more than 20 years and, since early 2020, serves as the Network’s Nursing Advisor — a role that is both essential and visionary. We caught up with Emo to get her insights on what it’s like to be at the center of the medical expertise, knowledge sharing, and collaboration that make SeriousFun camps as safe and vigilant as they are.

How did you first hear about and get involved with SeriousFun?

As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I knew of The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and when I became a nurse, I decided to volunteer. I had the most amazing week there. In fact, I had a vacation scheduled for the following week that I quickly cancelled when I learned that they needed more volunteer nurses. That one week at camp, which turned into two weeks, changed the whole trajectory of my nursing career.

After volunteering, I joined The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp as a staff nurse for two summers. From there, I was on the medical team at Double H Ranch, the SeriousFun camp in New York, for many years.

What does SeriousFun’s unique position as the leader of medical specialty camps mean to you?

I think the best part of it is that we truly look for the way to always say yes to our kids. So many times these children, because of their medical diagnoses, hear “no” over and over. No, you can’t do that activity. No, you can’t go on that vacation. No, you can’t do what other kids are doing. At SeriousFun camps, we work with their illnesses and we work with their challenges to make sure they can hear “yes” and I think that’s so incredible.

What sort of work do you currently do as nursing advisor and how does it differ from the other work you’ve done in the medical profession?

As nursing advisor, I get to connect with all of the camps and help each of them by providing the best resources we, as a Network, can, so they can deliver high quality medical care. As part of that effort, I help connect nursing and medical directors around the world so that we can all continually learn from each other.

In terms of differences, the main thing is that big picture view. As the nursing advisor for the entire Network, I need to understand how camp is taking place all around the world. When you’re at a particular camp or serving as a volunteer, you tend to just see that one week in front of you. But now I’m able to understand each camp’s needs and how different camps can help each other.

I always tell our nursing directors not to just sit down and write a policy or practice on your own. Always reach out first to see if that policy already exists somewhere within our Network and then you can build on it and make it your own. As nursing advisor, it’s my job to make it possible for all of us to work together and support each other in the best, most effective, and most efficient way possible.

Can you tell us about how medical professionals at camp make the medical aspect blend seamlessly into the background of the fun taking place?

Because their medical condition has such an impact on their lives, campers are always aware of things like having to leave school early for an appointment or having to take medication at a certain time. It can dominate their thinking or expectations for their daily life. As medical professionals, our goal is to fade into the background at camp but to always be present.

I like to think of it as I’m always there for them, and all their needs, but not in a way that feels like they are any place other than camp. So instead of disrupting their experience by having them come somewhere to get their medications at a certain time, we bring it right to them, almost magically appearing when they need it.

But that magic takes a lot of planning and preparation — and it’s all so that campers can go from constantly checking their watches at the start of camp to trusting that they’ll get the medication they need while they’re having fun without ever missing a beat. Seeing the progression they make from being a kid who’s constantly thinking about their medical care and their medical needs to one who is a little more carefree, experiencing something they have never been able to before with new friends, is the best part of what we do.

Emo dances with campers and counselors at a camp session at Double H Ranch, the SeriousFun camp in New York.

How have you observed camp impact those in the medical profession?

As a medical professional, when I talk to other medical folks about what we do at camp, they’re blown away. People are just amazed that we’re able to take children who are on ventilators and get them down zip-lines or even go swimming in a pool. There’s no doubt that the nurses and doctors get so much out of it too.

I think the best part of it is when a nurse or a doc is at camp at the same time that one of the children that they care for in the hospital setting is also there, because as a provider, the doctors and nurses see their patient in a totally different light. But even more profound is the child seeing that nurse or that doctor in a different light.

I have some kids that have been to camp and the only thing they want to do is pull a prank on their doctor. The doctor that they see all the time and are constantly in that professional doctor-patient relationship with is one of the caring adults who is there to both take care of them and help them have fun at camp.  

I’ve seen lots of doctors become the focus of a good-hearted prank by campers who are their patients. Planning the prank the whole week and then having it sort of come to fruition at the end is an amazing moment for both the camper and the doctor. And then that relationship at the hospital is completely different. Once you have that camp bond, that level of trust that develops, you have a whole other layer of the relationship. It’s just unbelievable.

What advice would you give to someone that wants to get involved and how can they do so?

My advice is do it. Absolutely do it. If you’re thinking about camp and you’re wondering, “Should I take the chance and go?”, do it because it’s going to be amazing. As a nurse, a little bit scary and a little bit uncomfortable because we’re used to working in the hospital or clinic environment. But know that the medical teams are really good at training and setting protocols and making sure that each doc or nurse feels very secure in their knowledge and in their understanding of how to care for kids at camp.

If you’re a little bit scared, that’s okay. I always respect a little bit of fear. I think it’s what makes us good as healthcare providers. But don’t let that fear hold you back from going to camp because it really is the best place ever. All of the SeriousFun camps have fantastic websites that have great information for volunteers. Many of them have a place for medical volunteers so once you read about what they offer, all you need to do is reach out to the camps and see how you can get involved. It will absolutely change your life.

Emo smiles with friends at Double H Ranch, the SeriousFun camp in New York.

If you could have one wish about camp come true, what would it be?

My greatest wish is for SeriousFun to continue growing and reaching more kids. I think it’s so cool that, because of our innovation during the pandemic, we’ve developed new ways to reach kids. We’ve embraced all of the ways that we can connect with them. We can now have the in-person experience and then we can continue connecting with them all year-round through alternative programming. And kids that might not be able to come to camp can still join camp virtually. It’s also so cool to be able to link families together so that they understand that there are other families that are having the same challenges that they are. That’s very powerful.

Continuing the kind of expansion and outreach that allows us to serve many more kids and families is the dream, and we’re focused on fulfilling it!

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