Summer can be a rough season for burn survivors. Hot weather necessitates shorts and bathing suits, revealing enduring burn scars for all to see. Endless questions and stares ensue, causing burn victims to relive a traumatic experience again and again.
This is the first summer since J’Michael Austin, 12, was severely burned last September, but he wasn’t self conscious about displaying his battle scars in his swim trunks and sleeveless shirt for Fire Truck Day at Portage Lakes State Park. He had already spent the week with fellow burn survivors, first responders and the Akron Children’s burn unit staff at the Akron Rotary Camp, swimming in the lake, fishing and playing hoops. No stares here. No explanations needed.
“Burn injuries themselves are unique because, different from so much of what we take care of in medicine, patients wear their scars,” said Dr. John Crow, chairman of the department of surgery and director of the Paul and Carol David Foundation Burn Institute at Akron Children’s Hospital. “So they have to really become resilient, really be super heroes, to get back into society, so this is part of that recovery.”
J’Michael’s joy was contagious as he ran through the spray of 20+ fire trucks lined up just for him and his fellow campers.
As he floated through the foam lake created by the Akron Fire Department’s foam truck, he handed out plenty of hugs to the nurses and doctors who helped him recover during his 9-month hospital stay in the Akron Children’s burn unit.
“I love burn camp,” said J’Michael, who will be starting 6th grade this fall at Emmanuel Christian Academy. “It is inspiring to be here with the other kids. I know I am not the only one who went through the pain.”
Never leaving his side was Jayden Wallace, 16, who was burned during the ignition of a bonfire in a neighbor’s backyard 7 years ago. This is Jayden’s sixth year as a camper, and he’s taken new campers like J’Michael under his wing. Relationships like this between campers is exactly what the camp organizers are hoping will occur. Despite their age difference, Jayden and J’Michael are comrades, sharing the unique perspective of getting back into the business of life after being seriously burned.
Jayden said he enjoyed going to Cedar Point and an Indians game this week, but says hands down his favorite part of burn camp each year is Fire Truck Day.
“All the foam and the water are a blast,” said Jayden. “This is an inspiring day for everyone. A day for fun.”
Campers start the day with a boat ride from their home for the week, the Akron Rotary Camp, to the Portage Lakes State Park beach area. They are greeted by the sirens of 20+ fire trucks from locations all throughout the region. Participating fire departments in this day of fun included Akron, Barberton, Bath, Canal Fulton, Copley, East Sparta, Fairlawn, Green, Hartville, Jackson, Lakemore, Louisville, Magnolia, New Franklin, North Canton, Norton, Pike, Plain, Perry, Sandy, Sebring, Tallmadge and Washington.
The trucks line up in the parking lot, creating a misty tunnel fueled by fire hoses and aerial ladder trucks. Campers are invited to hold the hoses and help spray attendees, and a giant water fight ensues. The goal is for no one to leave Fire Truck Day dry and that mission was accomplished.
For many the top attraction is the Akron Fire Department’s foam truck, which typically helps put out chemical fires and hazardous waste spills. On this day, the foam serves an equally honorable purpose: Fun. As the bubbles cascade out of the truck, a giant foam pool forms in a grassy area at the park. Popular with the young and the old, everyone takes a dip in this giant bubble bath and then rinses off with the fire hoses.
Burn scars are hidden under the cover of the bubbles and forgotten. Few can resist this rinse-and-repeat cycle. Campers especially love smearing their nurses and doctors with the foam, a sort of payback for all the treatments they endured during their hospital stay.
Soon the roar of Air Bear, Akron Children’s transport helicopter, is heard and spotted in the skies above, landing in the parking lot and making this the ultimate touch-a-truck (and helicopter) event.
“It is so important for these kids, the firefighters and the burn unit staff to have this day of fun together,” said Becky Mundy, burn educator at Akron Children’s Hospital and the organizer of burn camp. “Burns are very painful and it can be a long recovery for patients. Our staff and patients already have a deep bond that is further strengthened by the fun we all experience together on Fire Truck Day. It is part of the healing process.”
Mason Morris, 13, was burned over 85% of his body last summer when a cup of gas ignited while he was killing weeds in his yard. While he wasn’t able to attend camp this year, he wanted to see what the camp and Fire Truck Day was all about.
He has recovered from his injuries after a 100-day hospital stay and Fire Truck Day gave him a chance to reunite with some of the first responders to his accident at the New Franklin Fire Department. He was especially excited to ride in style to the event in the department’s fire truck.
“A normal kid wouldn’t get to talk to these fire departments,” said Mason, who plans to attend camp next year. “I love it!”
As the action dies down, everyone shared shaved ice treats supplied by Milliken Healthcare Products and a barbecue picnic provided by Portage Crossing Market District on the shores of the beautiful Portage Lakes.
And the fun is not over for campers. They will enjoy another day of fellowship culminating with a big celebration dance.
As the campers pack up their memories and head home, they can already start looking forward to next summer and the one after that, because they know this unique community tradition will continue, just has it has every year since the 1980s. Why change a good thing?
Watch Fox 8’s footage of the event with the story of burn survivor Mason Morris below: