Camp Superkids

 As the American Lung Association of Illinois celebrated the 25th anniversary of Camp Superkids for asthmatic children, it also reached another milestone: the first year the camp was completely underwritten by outside sources.

Swimming, hiking, canoeing, and arts and crafts—these are the de rigueur activities of most summer camp experiences, which are barred to many children with asthma. For the past 25 years, the American Lung Association of Illinois’ Camp Superkids has given children are 8-12 who have asthma an opportunity to have the same summer experience as their nonasthmatic peers.

The Illinois Camp Superkids is part of a network of 99 American Lung Association asthma camps spread across the country. Each camp differs in the details of its program, but the goal is the same. “The main goal is to have children with asthma enjoy a camping experience while being monitored by medical personnel and learning asthma management skills,” says Carol Schank, RN, RRT, camp director of Camp Superkids.

The Illinois camp is open to any child who has moderate to severe asthma from anywhere in the state, except Cook County, which has its own camp. During the school year, Schank sends flyers about the camp to every school—private and public. About 90% of the campers sign up as a result of the flyers. For this year’s camp, she received 250 applications, which she had to whittle down to 116. Children are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis; however, Schank still has to evaluate the applications. “I really look at the severity [of the asthma] and if this kid could go to another camp,” Schank says. “The worst part of my job is saying, ‘Your kid doesn’t have asthma bad enough.’ The other part I dislike is calling [a parent] and telling them we’re full.” Children can attend the camp twice.

In addition to marking its 25th anniversary, this year’s Camp Superkids reached another milestone. It was the first year it was completely underwritten by outside sources. These included philanthropic organizations and manufacturers of asthma equipment. Parents are also asked, but not required, to donate between $5 and $100 to help support the camp. “We never turn a child away because of financial situations,” Schank says.

Super Staff
Key to the success of the camp is the volunteer medical staff, which this year included five physicians, six respiratory therapists, and seven nurses. Many of the volunteer staff have given up a week of their vacation for several years to work at the camp. This year saw a 100% return of last year’s medical staff. “I could not do this without the [medical staff],” Schank says. “The kids are wonderful, the kids are great, but they wouldn’t be there if we did not have these volunteers.”

Brian Lawlor, MS, RRT, the camp’s director of respiratory therapy, has been volunteering for 14 years. He was motivated to volunteer partly by his own experience as an asthmatic child. He also believes it is an obligation he has as a therapist. “It’s part of our training,” Lawlor says. “I think one of the key things that we’re supposed to do as a therapist is to help improve the quality of one’s life. That’s exactly what I’m looking to do by helping these children.” Because of his experiences at the camp, over the years Lawlor has encouraged several of his colleagues to volunteer.

Life At Camp
The week at Camp Superkids starts with a 2-hour check-in process, during which time parents meet with the various members of the medical staff to discuss their child’s medical status and treatment. Parents are allowed to call the camp infirmary throughout the week to track how well their child is doing.

A typical day at camp starts at 7:30 am with reveille and a trip to the infirmary to receive a peak flow measurement and any needed medications. The morning is then taken up with activities that can include either asthma education classes or more conventional camp activities such as swimming or hiking. All the campers are marched back to the infirmary at 11 am whether they need to receive medication or not. After lunch and a brief rest, there are more activities followed by a 5 pm trip to the infirmary and dinner. In the evening there is typically a group activity such as a self-esteem speaker or a game of capture the flag. Bedtime brings another trip to the infirmary for an end-of-the-day peak flow measurement and any necessary medications. All of the camp counselors are armed with radios and can reach a medical staff member any time during the night if an emergency occurs.

Lawlor’s medical duties revolve around the infirmary trips. “The key duty of the respiratory therapist is having each camper perform a peak flow at the beginning and end of each day,” he says. “We document each time the therapists perform those peak flows. We take the best of three peak flows in the morning and at night and document them on each child’s chart so we have recorded at least two peak flows per day. If a child has to come into the infirmary during the day and complains of shortness of breath, we’ll give them a peak flow then as well. Throughout the course of the week, physicians at the camp review the course of each camper’s peak flow to see if anybody starts to have a downward trend, and, if so, they may want to look at the current medications the child is taking, the type of therapy, and the therapist may make recommendations and changes to head off any exacerbation of the child’s asthma.” Individual campers may need additional trips to the infirmary if they are getting regular nebulizer treatments.

Educational Fun
Although having fun is a big part of Camp Superkids, education is a key ele]ment of the experience, appearing at any time and any place during the day. “We slide education in and the children don’t even know it,” Schank says. “For example, when they go to the infirmary four times a day, they might be standing in line waiting to see the nurse, they’re singing a song, but the nurse is watching them take the inhaler. It’s not that one shot of education that you might get in the doctor’s office for 15 minutes. It’s enforced four times a day and then during the asthma education classes.”

 A respiratory therapist educates asthmatic children about their disease.

The educational activities at Camp Superkids not only help campers learn about how to avoid an asthma attack, but also helps them come to terms with their disease. “The children see they can deal with it, they can treat it, they can live with it,” Lawlor says. “They can do anything any other kid can do as long as they keep their asthma in check. We do the same activities as at any other camp or school. They see all these other kids around them that have the same problem and they’re sharing something in common. They gain self-confidence.”

Lawlor’s role as therapist also includes helping boost the campers’ egos. “I think we really try to help some of the campers who have emotional problems or need support to improve their self-esteem,” he says. “Every year there are a couple of them who have no self-confidence whatsoever. My therapists will take the extra effort to work with them by doing an activity and building their self-esteem and helping them feel more comfortable with their disease. For example, this year we had a young girl who always had a problem with the group. She was falling behind and not always keeping up, but one of my therapists took her under her wing and said, ‘How about if we go swimming or canoeing together?’ They went canoeing and took a couple of other girls with them and she had a great time. Her self-esteem built up over the week and she was smiling much more toward the end of camp. [The therapists] want to see everybody do well. They really have a genuine interest in these kids having a good time.”

Changing Perceptions
A member of the medical staff is present at all camp activities, which guarantees more than the medical well-being of the campers. “The kids love it when they see the doctors swimming with them,” Schank says. “They are there to have fun with the campers, but are really there to help monitor them. It’s a great way for the kids to see doctors in a different light.”

But seeing their doctors and therapists in a different light is not the only perceptional shift at Camp Superkids. By the end of the week, many of the campers are also seeing the benefits of understanding their disease. “One year a child saw his mother and gave her a big hug and said, ‘Mom, I learned how to do my inhaler the right way!’—I thought, ‘Yes! We got it,’” Schank says.

The educational activities have had a measurable effect. Two years ago, Schank helped conduct a Midwestern University study of former campers that found over a 2-year period, a 76% decrease in missed school days, a 46% decrease in emergency department visits, and a 32% decrease in hospitalizations among children who went to Camp Superkids.

And the benefits the children derive from Camp Superkids are more than just a better understanding of their disease. Many of the campers forge lasting friendships. “It was so cool this year,” Schank says. “I had a child whose mother got lost on the way to the camp, and she was visibly upset because she was late. I was in the cafeteria with the child playing cards and the woman came in and said, ‘I’m so sorry I got lost.’ Her child didn’t think anything of it. He said, ‘That’s okay. Guess what? I made a new friend and we’re going to email each other.’ The kids write to each other, exchange names and addresses, and we have fund-raising events—like asthma walks—and they have a great time when they can get back together.”

The benefits for the therapists are as great as they are for the children. “The staff has become a family,” Schank says. “We really do it for the kids and then we have this little selfish part. We get to see our friends.” For Lawlor, there is no question that volunteering is a benefit. He is already looking forward to his 15th summer at Camp Superkids.

C.A. Wolski is associate editor of RT Magazine.