Wednesday, April 16, 2008

brilliant idea: broader range of camps for chronic kids

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I always felt like a freak at summer camp. None of my cabin mates knew there was anything different about me. That is, until the inevitable heat and exertion triggered migraine set in and sidelined me with its punishing pain and nausea. There's nothing quite like vomiting and writhing in pain to set you apart from your peers.

I can't help thinking it would have been really cool to have had the opportunity to attend camp with other kids whose health conditions impact their day to day lives, but don't hold them back. What a tremendously valuable opportunity to help these kids foster camaraderie and comfort with their challenges, as well as form lasting friendships.

Boom in Camps for Chronically Ill Kids

In many ways, chronic-disease camps are like any summer camp, with some extra safety steps and accommodations.

"They have this zip-line there," 12-year-old Andrew Frascella of Rockville, Md., says excitedly about epilepsy camp. "It's really high above the trees. You get strapped on and go flying."

But some of these camps go beyond recreation to also teach children about their illness in ways they may never have experienced — with doctors and nurses clowning around in shorts instead of scrubs to gain youngsters' trust, and counselors with the same illness acting as mentors.

Cardiology nurse Betsy Adler says children born with heart defects often don't know exactly what's wrong with their hearts, just that they're sick or need an operation. So every summer, she brings about 20 cow hearts — the same anatomy as a human's, just much bigger — to Cincinnati Children's Hospital's Camp Joyful Hearts.

The campers help slice them open while cardiologists point out valves, chambers and arteries, and explain to each child who asks how their own heart is different. Adler recalls a teen who never understood why he had to take the blood-thinner Coumadin every day, and got a hands-on explanation about artificial heart valves.

Or consider epilepsy. You can't see your own seizures, but kids do see parents worry and classmates withdraw — a fellow second-grader once asked Andrew if his seizures meant he was "crazy."
Doesn't that just break your heart?

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