Duke Camp Offers Patients the Chance to Just Have Fun
KERR LAKE, N.C. -- It's a kid's rite of passage. Summer camp is a time to venture from home for days of swimming and sailing, making new friends and lifelong memories. That's what Camp Graham, the rustic Girl Scout haven on a lake in North Carolina, is all about.
But occupying one of its four separate campsites, as it has for the last 20 summers, is a stealth hospital of sorts. Medical supplies are tucked away, and physicians and nurses replace white coats with shorts and bathing suits. Their charges, kids age 7-16, follow the same camp routine as scores of healthy Scouts nearby. But some kids tote an IV drip bag or portable heart monitor during activities, while others pull big ball caps down close to protect bald heads from the sun. And when it comes time to do chores like cleaning, more than a few whip out surgical masks and gloves.
The 110 children attending what's called Camp Kaleidoscope are chronically ill, some suffering from terminal diseases. Cancer, AIDS, heart disease and a myriad of other diagnoses have robbed them of a carefree existence. As much as possible, Camp "K" restores that youth, offering them a chance to kid again -- not just to be a sick kid. Duke runs the camp so that patients with varied backgrounds and illnesses can benefit from each other's lifestyles and experiences.
Any Duke pediatric patient can attend, with the agreement of parents and the health care team. The free camp offers three week-long sessions, each for a different age group, and more than 40 doctors, nurses, technicians and volunteers take shifts in the cabins, without electricity - and that means no air conditioning. And no electric pumps or devices. Even so, camp counselors have come up with solutions for many needs. For example, children with rare metabolic disorders who require tube feedings of special formula diets throughout the night can use battery-powered pumps.
Despite the lack of climate control and other conveniences, at least half of the Camp K staff are veterans, says Bill Taub, a clinical social worker who is serving as interim director of Camp K. The reward of spending a week with these children is immeasurable, he says. "Even in a time of cutbacks in medicine generally, we can achieve full staffing." That includes a full complement of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, child life specialists, pharmacists, medical students and others.
There are many reasons why health care workers volunteer, says pediatrician Dr. Robert Drucker, who serves as Camp K's medical director.
The camp allows health care workers "to interact with these children - our patients - in a setting away from the hospital or clinic," he says. "We can play with them and appear as less threatening individuals in the camp setting. This can then carry over to the clinic or hospital when we see them again. "Another level is the education these children give us - the way they handle their medical problems as part of their daily routine. They have taught me about some of the problems with their medications, or the limits of their physical capabilities," Drucker says.
Finally, he notes the camp offers the chance to watch children having a good time, especially those who may not have had such an opportunity before. They are kids simply enjoying life. After a recent camp, Drucker said, "I can't take my eyes off the tiny ones who go swimming for the first time, dunk their heads in the lake water and come up spewing so much delight. They give me far more than I've ever given them."