Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Double H’s new medical chief was camper there as child with cancer

By Mark Frost, Chronicle Editor

Dr. Chris Woll is a now pediatric emergency physician at Albany Med. Chronicle photo/Mark Frost

Dr. Chris Woll was an eight-year-old cancer patient from Clifton Park when he first attended Double H as a camper.

Once he started, he never stopped — “every summer, up until I aged out as a camper…I started when I was eight and came until I was 16.” Then, from “17 to 25. I came as a counselor. And I held various roles on staff of being a cabin counselor, a unit leader, and then medical staff as well.”

What did the Double H experience do for his cancer fight? “It gave you hope and motivation throughout the year to get back to camp and see all of your friends,” he says. “That gave you a purpose.”

“In terms of recovery, I think it gives you a positive outlook on everything, which I think is a large part of the battle of recovery. You know, it’s easy to get down on yourself and get frustrated. But I think camp gave me at least some good coping skills and healthy outlets. That facilitated recovery for me.”

He also met his future wife, now Dr. Kate Woll, at Double H. They have two children. “We were both campers here. And we were both counselors here. Now she’s a pediatrician over at Latham Pediatrics. She was actually a nurse’s child. So the nurses who come work [here] for the week, they get to bring their kids up for the weekend.”

Was it love at first sight? “For me,” he says. “I can’t say the same for her.”

Marriage is a frequent result at Double H. “We were talking about all the couples that have ended up from camp, like, it’s crazy,” says Dr. Woll.

He remembers vividly the onset of the cancer, at age 7. “I was coming home from, like, a regular summer camp,” he says. “And I can still remember sitting in the backseat passenger side of the car and telling my mom, ‘Hey, Mom, my legs don’t look the same. Like there’s something off.’ It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t bothering me at all. I just noticed that it looked different.”

His cancer was confirmed by a biopsy at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. “Most of my chemo was done at Albany Med. I had my major surgeries and some chemo done at Memorial Sloan Kettering, as well, down in New York. I had one major surgery where they took out most of my left calf muscle. That had pretty extensive rehab, and intense chemo down at Memorial.

“That was unpleasant…All I can remember of those days of when I was having chemo, just feeling sick all the time.”

He beat the disease, then set his sights not surprisingly on a medical career.

“Undergrad was at SUNY Upstate. Then I did a year of just classes at UAlbany to get all of my requirements done for med school applications. I worked a year as a radiation therapist. Then I went to med school at SUNY Upstate for four years.

“I knew I wanted to go into medicine, because of my experience and wanting to give back to the community that had helped me and my family out so much. And then my experience at camp solidified the thought that I wanted to work with kids,” he said.

“I worked as a radiation therapist that one year and that was mostly adults. And that again solidified that I definitely do not want to work with adults,” he laughed.

“I did pediatric residency at Duke. I did that for three years…You know I always thought that I was going to go into hematology and oncology just because of my experience. But I had found that I really liked emergency medicine. It gave me a lot of flexibility, more so to be up at camp as much as I wanted. So I did three years of training at Yale for pediatric emergency medicine.”

“So now I’m in the pediatric emergency department at Albany Med. And I work there full-time.”

“Normally I am back home working in the hospital, and then I’m up here one day a week to do meetings and check in with the ‘Body Shop,’ Double H’s wryly named infirmary.

Dr. Woll has known founding medical director Dr. Kathy Braico all along.

“As a camper, I had no idea how much work she put into it, everything just ran seamlessly. And I came and I had fun, and I went home….And then when I came as a medical student, you start to grasp how dedicated she’s been to this place since day one, and how much time and energy she’s put in — to make it run flawlessly.”

The Chronicle asked when Double H approached him about succeeding her? He said it went the opposite way.

“I tried to plant the seed many years ago, me being interested in the job,” Dr. Woll says. “A lot of my decisions for my career were based on coming back and being involved with camp to the fullest of my capacity. I was formally approached probably, maybe about a year ago.”

Is it daunting to succeed Dr. Braico?

“Of course! Of course! I don’t want to be the guy who drops the ball. She’s done such a good job for the past almost 30 years.” But he continues, “I think it’s daunting in a good way. It’s motivating. I think motivating is a good word for it.”

The camp wasn’t able to operate last summer due to the Covid pandemic, but it is going this summer in a curtailed basis.

“We’re probably at about 40% right now, around there,” Dr. Woll says. “About 50 campers per session.” How’s it going? He knocked on wood. “Three weeks and not a hiccup,” he said when The Chronicle interviewed him in mid-July.

He was the volunteer doctor on duty that week, but this year his family couldn’t join him. “We had made the decision that if you are not part of the camp session that it is going to be off limits for being on site.”

In terms of Double H returning to normalcy, he says, “I think it’s premature to think about right now. Just because I feel like there’s still a lot of unknowns, especially with the Delta variant coming out, it’s going to be very difficult to assess what the future holds.”

But Dr. Woll said the heightened safety protocols don’t stop the kids’ fun.

“I feel like this past year, for schooling and everything, they’re so used to the mask and so used to the social distancing, that they are not affected by the limited size and the restrictions that we have in place right now. They’re still having a great experience. And that was really good to see. We have them isolated to the cabin — not their physical cabin, but the cabin as a group of children.”

There are 10 kids to a cabin.

“Some of the activities, they are modified to make sure that there is no intermingling of the cabins. For example…the talent show would usually be everybody in an auditorium sitting together and the performer is up on stage. And now we are doing it in a kind of isolated section, either outdoors where they can all be spread out. Or in physically separate locations with a live stream of the performer.”

Dr. Woll’s vision for the future? “What I foresee is that we’re just going to grow our camper population…that we can serve and safely serve. I think with the advancement of a lot of medical technologies and diagnostics, I think that it will allow us to safely serve them as we learn more and more about these diseases.”

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