BIRMINGHAM – The most recent Alabama data find one in every 10 Alabama adults, or 306,000, suffer from asthma. The data also show more than 12 percent of Alabama children are living with the chronic respiratory disease at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, these children live sheltered lives trying to avoid the triggers that can induce an asthmatic episode. Summer camp was not an option for these children…that is until Camp WheezeAway opened 27 years ago.
“Camp WheezeAway is one of the longest-running asthma camps in the country. It’s a memorial camp dedicated to Patsy Ruff, who was the world’s first successful double lung transplant in 1987,” explained Dr. Amy CaJacob, a pediatric allergist/immunologist and the camp’s medical director. “Patsy had asthma, COPD and was a smoker for 22 years. One of the things Patsy wanted was a camp for kids because when she was growing up with asthma, she couldn’t go to a summer camp like her friends. She really wanted kids with asthma to have a normal summer camp experience that she never had, and that’s what we try to do at Camp WheezeAway.”
Camp WheezeAway is celebrating its 27th anniversary this year and is free to qualified applicants – youngsters ages 8 to 12 suffering from persistent asthma. Campers are selected in June, and the camp is July 1-6, 2018, at YMCA’s Camp Chandler.
Dr. CaJacob explained the importance of education about asthma and how to handle its limitations is as much a part of the camp as having fun. Asthma affects nearly 25 million people of all ages and races. An estimated 7 million children have asthma, a chronic disease caused by inflammation of the airways in the lungs. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airway constrict, the lining of the airway passages swell, and the lungs produce excess mucus making breathing difficult, which can lead to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
“Every year at camp on the last night we have a smokeless campfire at night after dinner,” she explained. “We wheel around an oxygen tank and talk to the kids about the dangers of smoking. We tell them the story of Patsy Ruff, her surgery, and how the camp began. All the campers are at that age where they may want to experiment with smoking, and they are going to be making their own decisions about their health or possibly succumb to peer pressure about smoking. They need to understand how their decisions will affect their health.”
If you think asthma education is boring, think again. Dr. CaJacob and the staff of medical volunteers find new ways each year to make it as interactive and fun as possible for the campers…even if it involves grossing out some of the kids.
“We don’t want to bore the kids during the education section. The project I do every year is, well…we make mucus…it’s so messy, but the kids love it! The girls not as much as the boys, though,” she laughed. “We’ve done skits of how to avoid asthma triggers where the kids dress up as ragweed or cigarettes and a rescue inhaler. Sometimes it’s just hands-on training so they can learn how to use their inhalers.”
All in all, the campers get a well-rounded experience. From shaving cream battles, kayaking, and horseback riding, to rock climbing and archery…and anything you can think of doing in the lake…plenty of emphasis is placed on kids with asthma being NORMAL kids.
“We do all the stuff other camps do, but safety always comes first,” Dr. CaJacob said. “Camp has changed dramatically over the years from the kinds of kids who attend because asthma care has come a long way. There used to be much more medically complex kids than we have now. At one time there were kids on ventilators for their asthma. Our inhalers and treatments are so much better now. That’s not to say there might not be a child or two we may have to step up treatment during the week by putting them on a little stronger inhaler or an oral steroid. I’m there the entire week, and we have a number of nursing and respiratory therapists who are there as well.”
In many instances, Camp WheezeAway is a camper’s first sleepover outside the home. Because campers are not allowed cell phones, Dr. CaJacob assures parents they should not worry. A mother herself, there are plenty of times when she shrugs off her physician’s coat for her mom hat.
“For a lot of our campers, it’s their first time away from home, and we get a lot of homesickness that first night. Part of my job is doctoring that week, but a lot of it is just being a mom! That first night the kids can’t sleep or have tummy aches, but when they settle in and start having fun, everything is just fine! The campers aren’t allowed cell phones, but we take plenty of photos of the children and stay in touch with their parents by sending them photos of the activities, and let them know how things are going,” Dr. CaJacob said.
For more information regarding selection or medical qualifications and limitations, contact Brenda Basnight, CRT, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Camp WheezeAway is free to qualified applicants — youngsters ages 8 to 12 suffering from moderate to severe asthma, but registration is required. Donations are also appreciated and can be made online.