By Debra Mendelsohn
Ten minutes after I returned home from dropping my energetic 9-year-old son off at a Cub Scout day camp, the phone rang. The camp nurse was on the line telling me that a bee had stung my child and paramedics were on the way. To most kids, a bee sting is no big deal. But for my son, who has a severe allergy to bees and hornets, it poses a life-threatening emergency. “This adventure wasn’t in the camp brochure,” I muttered to myself as I raced back to the camp, located in the mountains north of our home.
I arrived just as the ambulance transporting my son reached the base of the mountain on its way to the hospital. Douglas looked so out of place strapped to the gurney – his hair was still wet from his dip in the swimming pool. He was trying so hard to be brave.
I wondered if I had made a mistake sending him to camp. But then I realized the camp had followed the written bee sting emergency plan I provided them only days before. The calm and quick response of the camp staff saved my son’s life. Sending my son to camp taught us both important lessons that will help him successfully navigate life with asthma and allergies. I learned how valuable advance planning and preparation for emergencies is, and my son learned to face his fears head on. In fact, at his insistence, he returned to camp the very next day, earning the playful summer nickname of “Venom Magnet.”
Thankfully, few kids who go to camp have a life-threatening emergency like ours. But practically every child walks away from the experience learning new skills, developing their independence and increasing self-confidence.
Into the Woods
Each year, more than 11 million children and adults pack their bags and head off to camp. Some will participate in day-camp adventures; others will seek out weekend retreats or extended residential experiences. For campers with asthma, allergies and food allergies or intolerances, the camp experience can be challenging. But with advance planning and education for everyone involved, these kids can have a tremendously successful and memorable experience . . . even if allergies and asthma tag along.
Just ask Erin Magee, a bubbly 15 year old from San Diego, California. Diagnosed with celiac disease, a digestive disorder that damaged her small intestine and interferes with her body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, Erin must adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. Given that gluten is found in everything from breads and pasta to sauces and ice cream, this can take a lot of detective work. Despite her food restrictions, Erin has been to multiple camps and summer workshops. “I love going to camp! It’s fun to be with my friends and experience new things,” Erin says. She admits that “it’s a hassle to have to eat different food, but sometimes my friends are jealous because they think my food looks better than theirs!”
Erin’s mom, Lisa Magee, was quite concerned the first time she sent her daughter off on her own. “I was worried that she would eat some gluten and get sick.” So Lisa got proactive. She called the camp director, requested menus and spoke to the cooks. To help them accommodate Erin’s dietary needs, Lisa provided gluten-free food and recipes. “If they were serving macaroni and cheese, I made sure they had a box of gluten-free noodles for Erin.” Lisa also provided menu notes and cards clearly detailing what foods her daughter could not eat. She made sure camp staff had her home and cell phone numbers and encouraged them to call if they had any questions.
When Erin returned home from camp, she realized how much the experience had taught her. “Before I went to camp, my mom always stuck up for me when it came to my food. At camp, I learned more about my food restrictions. Now when I go to restaurants with my friends, I feel more confident ordering foods and managing my own needs.”
The Path to Independence
According to the American Camp Association (ACA), Erin is not alone in discovering a new talent at camp. In a recent ACA study, 96 percent of campers reported that camp helped them learn a new skill and 92 percent indicated that camp helped them feel good about themselves.
Peter Surgenur, ACA national president, points out that in addition to fostering a child’s growing confidence in their own independence, the camp experience helps children learn to make new friends and do things on their own. “That is one of the greatest gifts of the camp experience,” he says.
It’s important for parents to carefully query camps ahead of time to ensure their child’s special medical and dietary needs can be accommodated. “Don’t shy away from asking the tough questions,” Surgenur says. “Parents should talk to the camp director about their concerns. Ask how the camp integrates children with special needs into the daily camp routine and whether medical staff are onsite at all times.”
Another way parents can check a camp’s credentials is to see if the camp is ACA accredited. For more than 100 years, ACA has been dedicated to developing and ensuring quality camp programs nationwide. ACA accredits more than 2,500 camps across the country, all of which have met nearly 300 standards for health, safety and program quality. Checking accreditation is as easy as visiting www.campparents.org.
Most importantly, parents need to develop a partnership with the camp staff to ensure a healthy and productive experience for their child.
Jordana Flores, director of Camp Alonim, a residential summer camp and year-round retreat facility in Ventura County, California, adds that camp “is a great opportunity for children to practice being responsible for their medical needs, with staff support.” According to Flores, camp can be especially beneficial for children with medical conditions such as asthma or allergies. “The experience offers these children a safe and nurturing place to practice decision making and coping skills without mom or dad.”
When Claremont, California, mom Jeanne Berrong was preparing her 10-year-old son to go to sleep-away camp for the first time, she was a wreck. “Ari has chronic nonallergic rhinitis and asthma, and he easily slips into sinusitis,” she explains. “It is imperative that he takes his maintenance medications like clockwork. I was terrified that with someone else in charge, he would slip in his routine and get sick.” Jeanne wasted no time in teaching her son take responsibility for his health care. She reviewed the medication dosages and regimen he needed to follow to stay healthy. “When Ari arrived at camp, he marched right up to the medical staff and gave them a detailed briefing on his medical needs,” she reports. “I watched my son become his own advocate and realized that I had done my job of preparing him to go out into the world on his own.”
Camp Director Flores applauds parents like Jeanne and Lisa who take the time to educate their children and camp staff on medical needs. But is education enough? What else can parents do to help their children have a safe and successful camp experience?
According to Redlands, California, allergist and AANMA member Edwin Malesky, Jr., MD, it is imperative that parents provide summer programs, whether at camp or school, with a detailed written asthma and allergy management plan for each child. He advises parents to check expiration dates on medications and quiz children to make sure they fully understand how to properly take their medications – and know what to do if medications don’t prevent or halt symptoms. Dr. Malesky also recommends parents take steps to minimize children’s exposure to things in the environment that can cause allergy and asthma symptoms. “For example,” says Dr. Malesky, “parents should send a clean sleeping bag, not one that has been sitting around collecting dust.” And be sure to pack your child’s own pillow, along with pillow and mattress encasements.
The transition from parent-driven oversight to independence can be challenging, but the camp experience can help children and parents alike achieve this milestone. Even if asthma and allergies tag along, the memories and rewards of a camp experience will last a lifetime. n
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The mother of two children with asthma and allergies, Debra Mendelsohn has volunteered as an AANMA Outreach Service Coordinator (OSC) for the past 10 years. Debra also owns DMPR Consulting, a Southern California public relations consulting firm specializing in community relations, environmental affairs and legislative advocacy.
First published: Allergy & Asthma Today, Volume 6, Issue 2
Updated: February 2009