They called me “Dr Beck” the last time I was at summer camp. I was not a doctor, nor did I have any medical training past the requisite premedical courses and a lifeguard certification. Still, medical school was in my future, and for my campers and fellow counselors, that seemed to be enough. Lest you worry, I did not use my faux title aside from providing the random Band-Aid or applying a “needed” ice pack, at least not back then. Fast forward 17 summers, and I had the opportunity to return to camp this past summer as an actual doctor to care for 239 campers and 151 staff members. My experience reinforced the positive effect camp can have on campers and staff; it also showed how that effect can and does extend to the camp doctor.
Summer camp can be transformative for children and young adults, with proven, lasting effects on “psychosocial development, … peer relationships, independence, leadership, values, and willingness to try new things.”1 During my last summer at camp (the summer before I started medical school), I was responsible for managing ∼10 of my peers and maintaining the safety and happiness of >40 boys aged 11 to 14 years. I was 22 years old at the time, yet that summer job was among the most challenging and rewarding experiences I have ever had. It was also foundational for my career in pediatrics, as I now find myself responsible for managing multidisciplinary teams and maintaining the well-being of my patients.
After all these years, merging my camp and medical careers finally proved to be a real possibility. My daughter was old enough and interested in attending camp, and my family at home was receptive to my undying nostalgia. Although signing my daughter up for her camp session was easy, signing myself up involved overcoming a few logistic barriers. I worked with my home institution to schedule my time away and to verify coverage by our malpractice insurance. My divisional leadership and those in risk management proved supportive so long as I was appropriately licensed in the state in which the camp was located. Thus, I completed a mountain of paperwork and mailed a check to Albany. Now licensed for my camp “practice,” I studied to refresh my knowledge of the conditions I expected to encounter, from poison ivy and concussion to Lyme disease and homesickness.2 I also corresponded with camp leadership to identify what resources I would have (otoscope, tick removers, and over-the-counter medications) and what I would not (suturing materials and laboratory tests beyond urinalysis and rapid streptococcus screens).
As camp approached, I found myself getting excited (and nervous). I am used to practicing in a large, academic center, with resources at my fingertips and colleagues a stone’s throw away. I was admittedly anxious about practicing in the camp’s decidedly different environment as well as revisiting such an important place at a completely different stage of my life. Fortunately, I quickly learned that camp had not changed markedly over the years. The traditions, spirit, and camaraderie persist, and I felt welcome from the moment I reentered this unique, special world. Even better, my daughter felt the same way. She met new friends, enjoyed the fresh air, and left recounting stories of her experience. We both benefited from camp’s “intangibles,” factors such as resourcefulness and collaboration that are rooted in a communal spirit and in camper-to-camper, camper-to-staff, and staff-to-staff relationships. These relationships were described in a 1949 Journal of Pediatrics article as “the basic essentials of camp life.”3 Such essentials are exemplified by campers of all ages swaying arm in arm to the chords of 1960s folk music, campers learning new skills from patient counselors, and those counselors having a hug ready for their camp colleague in the midst of a long day. Happily, these same essentials extended to how we as a medical team helped care for the camp’s “patients.”
Years ago, I was told by a mentor of mine (a twenty-something counselor just a few years older than me) that a camp functions best when it is like a pot of water simmering at a controlled boil. Energy is palpable and effervescent; it boosts but does not burn. In practice, a camp’s inherent, beautiful disorder is kept in check by just enough structure. Campers and staff know where they must be at what time, with schedules dictating the timing of wake up, meals, activities, and bedtime. This structure and these schedules were also a part of my experience on the medical team. At breakfast, dinner, and evening snack, our team managed the seemingly endless parade of campers in need of their antihistamines, inhalers, and antidepressants. As lines formed, I triaged medical concerns and complaints, 2 incredible nurses dispensed medications (documenting each in official medication administration records), and counselors tracked down stragglers due for their medication doses. Although chaotic, the entire process was punctuated by laughter and brief conversations about the day’s activities. After meals, the nurses and I were available at the infirmary for “sick call,” our own walk-in clinic. We wrapped ankles, administered albuterol, removed ticks, and liberally applied hydrocortisone ointment. We worked with frontline counselors and an on-site psychologist to triage chief complaints, seeking to distinguish organic complaints from psychosomatic ones. During the day, we responded to emergencies (large and small), tearing through camp on a golf cart to remove splinters, evaluate head injuries, selectively check-in on homesick campers, and encourage hydration, hand-washing, and frequent application of sunscreen.1 With our own daily schedule, we helped to ensure that the atmosphere of camp boiled with activity in safe and healthy ways.3 I quickly grew to realize that just as starting a fire with damp wood and creating a masterpiece with popsicle sticks requires resourcefulness and collaboration, so too does a camp’s commitment to the well-being of children.
Brian Goldman4 wrote that going to summer camp can be a “respite to any doctor who … is buoyed by the sound of happy children at play.” Happily, opportunities abound at general and medical specialty camps all across the country. There are 3738 camps currently in the American Camp Association database,5 representing thousands of camp sessions that could be staffed by pediatricians just like us. I understand that not every physician (or child) can go to camp and that expense and inconvenience are insurmountable barriers for far too many. Yet, we as physicians can all benefit from immersive experiences, from coaching Little League Baseball and Softball to reading at a library’s story hour.6 We can also seek ways to capture camp’s energy and warmth in the atmosphere we create for the children in our practices from the waiting room to the examination room.3
As I return to my “real” job, I consider myself grateful for the spirit and energy I felt from the moment I turned down Camp Road. I hope to bring what I learned at camp into my daily practice, to do what I can to ensure that my patients experience a childhood that simmers with possibility. I hope to retain that spirit of resourcefulness and collaboration that characterized my camp experience and that characterizes camp from the waterfront to the infirmary. And, with a little scheduling luck and a nod of support from the newest camper in my family, perhaps I will get to go back next summer.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center or Camp Seneca Lake. I would like to recognize the unbelievable commitment and contributions of the leadership and staff at Camp Seneca Lake and give special recognition to the medical team, who showed their competence and kindness to me and to others at camp in ways that cannot be overstated. Also, thank you to my daughter, Naomi, for sharing in this camp experience with me and to my wife, Karen, and son, Eli, who kept everything under control at home. With luck, they will both join Naomi and me at camp next summer!
Dr Beck conceptualized and designed the manuscript, drafted the initial manuscript, reviewed and revised the manuscript, agrees to be accountable for all aspects of the work, and approved the final manuscript as submitted.
FUNDING: No external funding.
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The author has indicated he has no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The author has indicated he has no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.