On the morning of June 27, Camp Simcha Special, Chai Lifeline’s overnight camp for chronically ill children and teens, looked like any other summer camp as counselors and staff completed preparations for that afternoon’s arrivals. It was only as cars and buses pulled in and children with wheelchairs, walkers, and a plethora of medical equipment alit that the true nature of the camp was revealed.
This is no ordinary camp. The 230 children and teens who will spend refreshing and life-affirming weeks on the campus this summer are too medically compromised to go to other overnight camps. Together, they have more than a hundred different diagnoses. About 25% are “technology dependent,” as Dr. Robert Van Amerongen, the camp’s medical director, describes the children who require feeding tubes, supplemental oxygen or ventilators. It is this group that Dr. Van, as he known by one and all, and his staff, are concerned with as the night stars burn brightly and the campers get ready for bed.
It is already 10:00 PM when Dr. Van, the paramedics and respiratory therapist convene for night rounds. The nurses (there are eight in camp at any one time) are already going from bunk to bunk to distribute medication and make sure that the girls are comfortable. These rounds will check on equipment.
“Medical equipment is temperamental,” Dr. Van explains. “Changes in temperature, humidity, even altitude, can throw them off. We go from bunk to bunk to make sure that they are working correctly.”
Raanan Zidile, a paramedic who is spending his fifth summer at Camp Simcha Special adds, “The counselors have been extensively trained and they are familiar with the equipment. Many have been paired with their campers for years, and know their families. They understand all the issues. But we want to reassure them that they can call us at any time during the night if something happens or they’re not comfortable with the situation.” The medical staff has a rotating “on-call” schedule of physicians, paramedics, and nurses, and the staff repeats to counselors that they are always available.
Almost as soon as rounds begin, the staff convenes for a conference outside a bunk. A parent has rented a Pulsox, which measures oxygen saturation in the blood, for her child, but the company has delivered the wrong probe. It is already 11:00. Dr. Van decides against calling the parents. Instead, they swap out the unit for one that is already in camp and note that the parents will be called in the morning. The company will send the probe via overnight mail.
The respiratory therapist is nonplussed. “These things happen. We always have extras in camp,” he says.
The team walks into Camp Simcha’s newest cabin, the prototype for planned renovations. Inside the spacious interior are two bunks linked by a common area. Each inside room is delineated by pods of two beds separated by half walls. As the group moves to one of the pods, the reason becomes obvious. The young woman is hooked up to a machine that provides nutrition, and the half wall, so unnecessary in a regular camp, affords her an extra degree of privacy. Dr. Van speaks softly to the camper and counselor duo, checks the equipment, and says “Goodnight.”
“Go to sleep, girls,” he calls as he leaves. The girls of Camp Simcha Special are like their healthy peers in other camps: like to stay up late talking to one another. For many of them, however, exhaustion brings a host of medical issues, and Dr. Van wants to keep them out of the medical center.
Because campers don’t always admit that they are not feeling well, Dr. Van has embedded nurses into every division this summer. The hope is that divisional nurses will get to know the campers more personally, enabling them to better safeguard health. Routine care, like administering the thousands of pills that are distributed daily, will also be easier.
“This isn’t a hospital, even though there is a lot of medical care going on. We strive to diminish the boundaries between camp and care,” explains Dr. Van.
Dr. Van stops to speak with one of the other doctors. “Call me if anything develops,” the physician says, even though he is not on call that night.
“Usually when a doctor is called, a lot of people on the staff will volunteer,” Dr. Van says. “We like to bounce ideas off one another.”
“Two buckets will put out the fire faster,” the other physician adds.
At the end of rounds, the medical staff reconvenes in the medical center. Surrounded by brightly painted murals depicting a fantasy farm, the nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapist, physicians and the camp’s associate director, a social worker, review the day and plan for the next. As the meeting is breaking up, the phone rings, the first call of the night. Two paramedics and a doctor are out the door almost before the phone is put back into its cradle.
Summer has begun at Camp Simcha Special.
Camp Simcha Special is named in memory of Zvi Dovid Obstfeld. For more information about Camp Simcha Special, visit www.campsimcha.org. For information about Chai Lifeline and its programs, visit www.chailifeline.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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