While some people might be looking forward to a cruise or family trip this summer, many healthcare professionals plan to use their time off to volunteer their expertise at medically supervised summer camps that serve children and adults with medical conditions ranging from asthma to AIDS.
These camps, typically held over the course of a week or weekend, rely on nurses, respiratory therapists, medical students and other healthcare workers to provide campers with basic medical care, support and guidance. The experience also allows volunteers to network with others in the medical community, master new skills and make a profound difference in campers' lives.
Medical volunteers, whose duties might include administering meds or helping children maneuver IV lines while they participate in arts and crafts, work diligently to give children the same experiences healthy kids enjoy at summer camp.
"Our camp allows children to forget about their illness for a week and to just be kids," says Carrie Cady, RN, who volunteers at the Stanley Stamm Summer Camp outside Seattle. "Even if they can't breathe well, they can blow bubbles or soak their friends with a water pistol."
Cady says her own chronic health problems help her empathize with her young charges, who range in age from 6 to 14 and have chronic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis and heart disease.
Afflicted with both Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that has attacked her respiratory system, and asthma, Cady often relies on oxygen and a continuous positive airway pressure machine. While her condition has caused her to take a leave of absence from her full-time job as a pediatric nurse at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center for the past year, it hasn't dampened her enthusiasm or desire to volunteer at the camp, founded by Children's cardiologist Stanley Stamm, MD.
"The children know I have several chronic illnesses, but they see me blowing bubbles and having fun, and they realize that life can still be good even when you're sick," Cady says.
Medical volunteers have a tremendous impact on the lives of campers and their families. Without them, most camps wouldn't be able to operate.
"Every child deserves the opportunity to have fun and concentrate on being a child rather than a patient," she says. "We're also offering their families a much-needed respite."
Camp and Learn
Ellie McKinney, RRT, a respiratory therapist at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, Mississippi, volunteers at Camp Bluebird, a national summer camp for adults with cancer. She is also director of Camp Breathe Ezzzze, an asthma camp for children sponsored by the North Mississippi Medical Center.
In addition to ensuring campers enjoy themselves, medical volunteers like McKinney provide an important educational component. At Camp Breathe Ezzzze, for example, campers learn to manage their asthma through a series of games and activities. "We make using the peak-flow meters fun," McKinney says. "We do a lot of education and reinforcement, but we present it in a fun way."
And the educational aspects can also benefit the medical volunteers. Mary Bernstein, a nurse at the University of California at San Francisco's Psoriasis and Skin Treatment Center, has volunteered at Camp Wonder, a camp for children with rare skin diseases, held each summer in Livermore, California.
Since Bernstein works primarily with adults in her full-time job, the camp allowed her to work with children who have the rare epidermolysis bullose (EB) skin disease.
"We work to change dressings on the children with EB, which can often take from one to three hours," Bernstein says. "We pitch in wherever we are needed, and I can honestly say that volunteering at camp has been one of the most positive experiences in my career."
Where to Volunteer
To find camp volunteer opportunities, contact:
Most organizations accept applications year-round until the camp begins. There is no fee to volunteer, and camps provide orientation, training, food, lodging and medical supplies.