Happy shrieks erupted from the crowd as Payton Smotherman was wheeled into the mob of campers.
“As soon as I pushed her into the group of people in her wheelchair, like four or five people all saw her and recognized her at once,” says Angela, Payton’s mom. She chuckled as she recalled diving out of the way of the people racing toward her daughter to avoid being run over.
“There was a lot of hugging and there was a lot of crying. Nobody really expected to see her and it was a huge surprise,” she says.
It was not only a massive surprise for the other campers and counselors at the Hamilton, Ohio MDA Summer Camp. It was also a surprise for Payton.
That’s because just six short weeks before, the 13-year-old had endured major surgery on her spine.
When she was 6 years old, Payton was diagnosed with Sepn-1, a congenital muscular dystrophy that’s also called Rigid Spine Syndrome. Her disease not only makes it hard for her to breathe and move, it also caused her spine to become bent and deformed, putting her in a lot of pain.
Payton loves MDA — she’s a goodwill ambassador in Ohio — and her favorite thing in the entire world is going to the MDA summer camp about an hour from her home in Cincinnati.
But before the surgery she had to make a tough decision.
The week of camp — the best week of Payton’s year — wasn’t until July. When Payton found out she had to have surgery, it was only May. But she was already in excruciating pain.
Payton knew that she wouldn’t enjoy camp if she was in pain, so she decided that there was no more putting it off — she’d get the surgery as soon as possible and miss camp.
In return, her mom made her a promise.
“I promised her that as long as her doctor gave us permission and as long as she was up to it, that I would take her out to the camp one day during the week, so she could see all her friends and all the counselors,” her mom says.
On May 18th, surgeons fused part of her spine and inserted two metal rods and 18 screws into her back to straighten it and relieve her pain. She was stuck in the hospital for 10 days.
But Payton is a fighter and before Angela knew it, her daughter was walking with assistance and even able to start physical therapy.
Payton had bounced back from surgery like the superhero that she is. Pretty soon, the week of camp was here and Angela kept her promise.
When Angela and Payton dropped by, the fire trucks had just arrived to give the campers relief from the midwestern summer heat. Along with the other kids, Payton got hosed down by the fire fighters and then happily hopped in the pool with all her clothes on.
Payton stayed for dinner and chatted up the whole cafeteria. Then she stayed to play a prank on a counselor. (She was given the honor of smashing a pie into his face.) Then she played soccer in her wheelchair.
It started to get dark, and then it got darker. Payton didn’t want to leave and no one wanted her to leave.
So, two of the staff — Stephanie and Heather — hatched a plan and presented it to Angela.
They would pick Payton up at home in the morning and bring her to camp. That way, she could spend a whole day with her favorite people, in her favorite place in the whole world and participate in the end-of-camp dance. She would even get to spend the night.
Angela was scared and anxious, since it was so soon after Payton’s surgery, but she relented.
“We went over and asked Payton what she thought of that idea and she was in shock. She just kept saying, ‘Really? Really? Really? Really, Mom? Really?’ She couldn’t believe I was going to let her do it,” Angela recalls.
Everything went perfectly. Just six weeks after major surgery, Payton had the best day of camp ever.
“I thought it was awesome. I did the Cupid Shuffle and the Macarena at the dance — and I didn’t think I would do that six weeks after surgery and I did both of them,” Payton says. “And I pretty much collapsed into my chair afterwards, but I still did them.”
Plus, Angela got texts practically every minute, assuring her that Payton was having the time of her life.
“It’s just amazing to me and a true testament to how strong my daughter is that she was able to even do that six week post-op,” Angela says. “She’s my hero. My daughter is my hero.”
Payton loves camp, because it allows her to live unlimited. With her type of muscular dystrophy, she can’t walk, run or play sports.
But at camp, she can play soccer in her wheelchair and scream through the trees on a zip line. Because there are so many adjustments made to all the activities, every kid with muscular dystrophy can enjoy them, she says.
In short, Payton says, “It’s awesome.”
“It’s like a vacation from the disease, because you feel like you can do anything.”