Camp Queen Alexandra: How this patient’s stay at the Queen Alexandra Solarium became the summer camp experience he never had

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This story is part of a series that celebrates the legacy of the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health, paying tribute to the origins of Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island and the work we do today.

During the summer of 1968, then nine-year old Steve Battistolo spent his summer at the Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children on Arbutus Road. While it wasn’t how most kids would envision spending their summer break, Steve describes it as the summer camp experience he never had. Now more than 50 years later, Steve still has only the fondest of memories of his time at the Solarium.

Steve’s health story

Steve blames his stay at the Solarium on his grade 4 crush, Debbie.

“It was all Debbie’s fault. Debbie sat in front of me in class and I had a huge crush on her. One day, I was chewing up gravel on my bike in the parking lot trying to impress her when I wiped out and gave myself a huge cut on my chin. A couple weeks later, I started getting a sore ankle and eventually ended up in the hospital. I found out I had Osteomyelitis, which is an infection inside the bone marrow. If I was a betting man, I’d say I got it from that cut on my chin, so it’s really all Debbie’s fault.”

Steve spent the next several weeks at the hospital, undergoing an operation which left his entire left leg from his toes to his hip in a big white cast. Eventually, it was decided that Steve would be sent to the Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children on Arbutus Road. Steve was taken there from the hospital in an ambulance, not knowing where he was going or how long he’d be there for.

Settling in for the summer

When Steve first arrived at the Solarium, he recalls not being very happy to be there. Though his family lived close by in Cadboro Bay and was able to visit, he couldn’t help but feel abandoned. For the first week, Steve was mostly bed ridden and unable to leave his room. However, things started to change once he got his wheelchair and became mobile. His initial displeasure with the Solarium began to be replaced with joy and childhood wonder as he became friends with the other boys in his ward.

“Honestly, I never went to summer camp as a kid, but that’s what [the Solarium] felt like. We were kind of like a second family.”

Steve recalls many of the activities him and the other children used to get up to while staying at the Solarium, from picnic lunches on the patio, to listening to the janitor’s old war stories, to making crafts, and sometimes, like most young boys do, even getting into some mischief.

“The isolation ward had its own kitchen and we knew the nurses used to keep a stash of peanut butter cookies in there. In the wee hours of the morning us boys would sneak out to the kitchen and grab a cookie or two.”

One of Steve’s favourite activities was a game they used to play called musical wheelchairs.

“We used to take a record player to the auditorium which had a checkered tile floor. Somebody would man the record player while the rest of us would bomb around the room in our wheelchairs. When the music stopped, depending on which colour tile you landed on decided whether you were still in the game or not. It was a blast.”

Remembering the Solarium staff

A large reason Steve had such a positive experience during his summer at the Solarium was because of the nurses and other staff there. When Steve’s 10th birthday came around in August, the kitchen staff made up a big cake for him and had his parents come for a visit. Even when he had left the Solarium, the nurses still showed how much they cared. A few months after Steve had got out he ran into one of the nurses at the local shopping centre.

“All of a sudden this woman comes running out of the coffee shop and is yelling my name. I realized it was one of the nurses from the Solarium. She bought me a Coke and wanted to know all about how I was doing. Like I said, it was like a family there.”

If there was one nurse Steve had to call his favourite it would have been Mrs. Kosh, whom he admits he had a big crush on.

“She was so sweet, she used to tuck all of us boys in at night. At one point she went away for her honeymoon and when she came back she brought us all a small gift. She gave me a shell and I treasured it.”

Leaving the Solarium with a lifetime of memories

In true summer camp fashion, when Steve’s cast was finally taken off and it was time for him to go home, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to leave.

“When I first got to the Solarium I wasn’t very happy about being there. But by the end, that had completely changed. I remember the day I was leaving, one of the boys I was sharing a room with took me aside. He had been in and out of the Solarium already once before. I remember him telling me very seriously that while it was going to be exciting to go home, in the next weeks ahead I would find myself missing the place and wishing I were back. And he was right, it was very much like that. I was home and back to the real world and to a certain extent, I missed the Solarium.”

For Steve, the summer he spent at the Solarium was one he would never forget and the memories he made and people he met he still cherishes to this day, 51 years later.

“It’s funny, because as you grow older life moves so fast, but when you’re nine years old, three months out of your life is a huge amount of time. My time at the Solarium felt very bonding and it was definitely something that became a part of who I was.”