By Gary Fitzgerald
As children gather at Camp Wheezeaway every June, director Brenda Basnight likes to ask the new campers a simple question: “What do you like to do?”
All too often, the answer is: “Play video games.”
“They say they can’t go outside because they are allergic to grass and tree pollen, and that allergies could cause their asthma to flare,” Basnight says.
Truth is, most of the children can play outside – go hiking, horseback riding, swimming, canoeing or tubing – as long as they are prepared to handle the allergens and other triggers that may come their way.
Teaching children with asthma to better manage their condition – outside and indoors – is among the goals of Camp Wheezeaway, held every summer since 1991 at YMCA Camp Chandler in Wetumpka, Alabama.
When campers go horseback riding, for example, some may need to first use an inhaler to prevent symptoms from occurring. Afterward, they are encouraged to wash their hands and face – or take a shower – and change clothes to escape pollen that has settled on them.
“We teach children to control their asthma and not let their asthma control them,” Basnight says.
Studies show children who attend asthma camp are more likely to use their daily asthma medication and less likely to be hospitalized for asthma in the following year than those who do not attend camp, according to the nonprofit Consortium on Children’s Asthma Camps.
Learning About Asthma, Forging Friendships
Camp Wheezeaway hosts 50 children ages 8-12 with moderate to severe asthma. There is no fee to attend – the camp is funded by donations from businesses, foundations and private individuals.
In addition to participating in outdoor activities, campers attend 30-minute classes each day to learn about asthma, practice how to correctly use an inhaler and peak flow meter, and develop breathing relaxation techniques.
Kelsie Anderson, 18, a one-time camper who serves as a counselor, says the most helpful thing she learned at asthma camp was how to use a peak flow meter – the handheld device that can monitor breathing and signal an asthma flare.
“Before I went to Camp Wheezeaway, I had never used a peak flow meter before, and once I learned how to use it, it helped me know when I needed to adjust my medication,” she says.
Like most of the 100+ asthma camps in the United States, Camp Wheezaway has a fully trained, all-volunteer medical staff, along with camp counselors.
That was a draw for Madelyn, 10, and her mom Becky. Most traditional summer camps lacked the accommodations and staff training for kids with asthma. Madelyn attended Camp Wheezeaway the last two summers – swimming, hiking, kayaking and fishing were among her favorite activities – and she plans to return for a third.
Madelyn bonded with dozens of other children with asthma at camp, Becky says.
“They all have asthma in common,” she explains. “Most of Madelyn’s friends at home do not understand what it is like to have asthma. At Camp Wheezeaway, children have the freedom to be themselves and not worry about what another child is thinking if they wheeze or use an inhaler.
“Now Madelyn tells other kids why she takes her medication and helps them feel better if they have problems.”
Why Asthma Camp?
For an answer, listen to Kelsie Anderson: “I think the best part of camp is each child learns to overcome some sort of obstacle, whether it’s homesickness or shooting a bulls-eye at archery. Staying in a cabin in the woods and swimming in a lake is a new environment for many children.”
It’s the same as what children experience at traditional camps – except at asthma camp they are under the close watch of medical staff. The environment allows children to learn about themselves and what they are capable of.
As a counselor with asthma, Anderson uses her experience to help the campers. She is considering a career in respiratory therapy.
“I try to help the medical staff by showing the campers how many seconds they need to hold their breath after using their inhaler, or how they should breathe when using their peak flow meter,” she says.
Constant reinforcement and encouragement makes a difference in how campers perceive their asthma, Basnight says.
“Children with asthma go to camp to have fun and be normal,” she says. “You see them grow in their knowledge and control of their asthma. They arrive scared, not knowing what to do, and they leave with newfound confidence and a lifetime of memories.”
Asthma Camp Prep
- Schedule a visit with your child’s board-certified allergist to discuss any adjustments to the Asthma Action Plan. Ask for medication refills, if necessary.
- Talk with the camp director about what medications to bring; some camps may have access to a pharmacy on site.
- Keep medications in the original pharmacy container and clearly marked with your child’s name and birth date, pharmacy phone number, name of medication and dosage. Store the medications in a waterproof container also clearly marked with your child’s name and birth date.
- Notify the camp director if your child also has food allergies. Ask about menu accommodations during mealtimes; you may need to provide alternative choices. And be sure to pack epinephrine auto-injectors to treat anaphylaxis.
- If your child is receiving allergy shots, make arrangements for your child to receive the weekly dose prior to camp. Allergy shots are typically not administered at asthma camps.