Sara Meslow '92 overcomes life-threatening medical condition to answer her calling.
Sara Meslow thought her heart problems were conquered in 1994. A new procedure had seemingly brought her dangerously irregular heartbeat under control for good. Her cardiologist told her she had "graduated" and didn't need to come back for more treatments.
"For five years, everything was great," Meslow says. "I was off all medications, I had no scars; life was perfect."
But in the fall of 1999, Meslow's heart problems came racing back. Her heart was monitored doing 244 beats per minute at times. And sometimes she felt like her heart wasn't beating at all. It was a far more serious condition than she had endured before.
An MRI of her heart revealed just how serious. "It showed I had RV dysplasia," Meslow says, "which basically means that the right wall of my heart is like Jell-O and not really muscle. I was diagnosed with VT (Ventricular Tetracardia), a life-threatening condition associated with problems in the lower chambers."
Doctors considered her to be at high risk for cardiac arrest. Given that grim reality, Meslow faced dramatic surgery to implant a cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) in her chest to correct abnormal heart rhythms as they occur. It was more than a little scary.
"The nurse came in the morning of my surgery to show me the device and where it would sit in my heart," she says. "I remember I just sat there and cried for the whole hour she was there."
She had successful surgery on Jan. 21, 2000. The days that followed were filled with heart-wrenching questions and fears about her future.
"I kind of had this one-month funk where I said, 'Why me? What does this mean? Do I live a normal life? After that month of pity, I really looked at it and kept thinking to myself, 'Sara, there is a reason that you have this.'"
Finding the answer
The summer following her surgery, Meslow learned of a camp in California for kids with heart disease. She jumped at the opportunity and spent three summers there as a volunteer, including two as a program director. It was an incredible experience that changed the course of her life.
"After working at that camp, I thought, 'That's it. This is what I'm supposed to do; this is the reason I have this metal chunk in my chest.'" This began Meslow's dream of starting a camp in Minnesota.
She stepped away from her seven years of service as an elementary school social worker to pursue her new calling. It came together surprisingly quickly. She first sought seed money from the Medtronic Foundation. Medtronic is the maker of her defibrillator and, coincidentally, where her father and Concordia Board of Regents member, John Meslow, had served as senior vice president.
Medtronic got things pumping and in the summer of 2002 Camp Odayin, named from the Ojibway word for heart, was born. Using the facilities of Camp Knutson, located on 30 acres of beautiful lakes country near Brainerd, Minn., Camp Odayin gives young people with heart disease unique opportunities to enjoy what they never thought possible.
"They go horseback riding, water skiing, kayaking and take nature hikes just like the kids do at all the other camps," Meslow says. In just two summers, the number of campers ages 8 to 16 doubled from 53 to 107.
Campers and their parents take comfort in knowing that expert medical care is just a heartbeat away. Two pediatric cardiologists, a half dozen nurses, a programming expert on pacemakers and defibrillators, and the most sophisticated emergency medical equipment are all on site.
A contingent of Cobbers is also helping Meslow's cause, including her four-year Concordia roommate Tricia Farner Christopherson '92 and Martha (Rickbell) Sather '92, who serve as program directors, and counselors Micah Benson '00, Peter Benson '97 and Derek Wolden '92. In all, there are 60 medical and camp personnel working the camp; all are volunteers.
For Meslow, Camp Odayin is a full-time effort involving all the challenges of running a nonprofit organization. Months of fundraising and planning pay off with a week of fun and a lifetime of inspiration for the campers – and Meslow.
"These kids are my heroes," she says. "What I've been through in my adult life is nothing compared to what they've endured in their young lives.
"(So) for them to be able to look at me and realize the I'm enjoying a full life – I'm married, I have a baby, I'm living out my dream – gives them so much hope that they can do what they want with their lives as well."
Lights of the World
A memorable week at Camp Odayin culminates with an emotional ceremony. A candle is lit for every camper to signify his or her impact as a light in the world. Dry eyes are hard to find as personal stories are shared.
"There was this huge collection of candles in the middle of our circle," says Meslow. "We talked about how they're going to let that light shine in their hearts until they can see everybody back at camp next year. That was a very powerful night for me."
Everything looks bright for Meslow. New medication maintains her normal heartbeat and she's enjoying life with her husband and 1-year-old daughter. Most importantly, her faith is stronger than ever; doubts about her future are gone. "I have a chance to influence the affairs of the world in my little corner of Minnesota," she says. "I thank God for empowering me to do this with my life."
Originally published in the Autumn 2003 Concordia Magazine