Edmonton doctors, nurses help children with heart disease make summer camp memories

Eleven boys and girls diagnosed with heart disease had the opportunity to experience summer camp in Edmonton on Saturday, thanks to a volunteer team of doctors and nurses.

'We wanted to give these kids the same opportunities that non-medical children would have'

Our Lady Queen of Peace Ranch offered a first-time day camp experience to five-year-old Mason 'Mighty Mason' Anderson. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Mason "Mighty Mason" Anderson, 5, squeals as he dips and weaves between the volley of water balloons thrown by his friends at summer camp in Edmonton.

Save for a faint silvery scar that stretches the length of his sternum, there is nothing to indicate he's any different from the thousands of children who attend summer camps in the city every year.

But his day at camp wouldn't have happened without a volunteer team of doctors and nurses from the Stollery Children's Hospital.

Anderson is one of 11 boys and girls with congenital heart disease to form the first-ever Little Heart Heroes camp, a day camp for children aged four to seven who have recently been discharged from the Stollery.

"The Stollery was very good. They even have a Heart Heroes camp ... I always wanted to go to this camp," Anderson said.

Eleven children diagnosed with heart conditions spent the day at Our Lady Queen of Peace Ranch near Edmonton on Saturday. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The group visited Our Lady Queen of Peace Ranch on Saturday, a non-denominational summer camp on the northeastern edge of Edmonton.

Each child wore a super-hero cape, decorated with stickers and glitter. Anderson said he was undecided on his superpower, but declared his hero name as "Mighty Mason."

A group of nurses and doctors accompanied the children, using their experience working at the Stollery unit for heart conditions to monitor each child's health throughout the day.

We just make sure that every single kid that comes in here has a good memory.- Shyanne Blomquist, program facilitator

"A lot of them have undergone one, two or three surgeries. There's a few kids here that have had heart transplants," said registered nurse Jennifer Brenneis, director of Little Heart Heroes.

"Kids with heart disease are very, very complex and they have high medical requirements that mean that they can't participate in a lot of community programs offered elsewhere. So that's where the whole idea behind the Little Heart Heroes fund came from, is that we wanted to give these kids the same opportunities that non-medical children would have."

The ranch, which runs on donations, launched in Edmonton seven years ago as an offshoot of a similar not-for-profit camp near Bragg Creek, about 50 kilometres west of Calgary. An Alberta family, working anonymously, founded both sites using personal funds. 

The two sites are used by children and teens who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to experience summer camp. From July to August every year, they host children from low income families, as well as children with disabilities or illnesses.

"We just make sure that every single kid that comes in here has a good memory," said Shyanne Blomquist, a program facilitator for the Edmonton camp. 

"I try to give them the best experience they can have when they're here, just like how my counselors did for me when I was younger."

Shyanne Blomquist, 20, has been spending summers at the ranch since 2010, first as a camper and then as a counsellor and program facilitator. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The staff at Our Lady Queen of Peace Ranch are uniquely equipped to handle groups like Little Heart Heroes, Brenneis said.

"They get it," she said. "They understood the importance of having day camps and programs like this."

Brenneis and her volunteer team from the Stollery also run a weekend camp in August near Wabamun Lake for children and teens aged eight to 15 who are diagnosed with a heart disease.