Ask a Medical Professional: Diabetes Camp

By Catherine Marschilok, M.S.N., C.D.E., Board Certified in Advanced Diabetes Management

It’s not too early nor too late to think about a diabetes camp for your child this summer. A truly unique experience for those who attend it, diabetes camp might be the only place where children with diabetes are in the majority. To convey what makes the experience so special, I want to share with you a memory of mine from Camp Joslin, 1996.

Picture this…

It’s a hot sunny day, and there is a group of 10 boys playing pick-up basketball, divided into Shirts and Skins. One member of the Skins team steps out of the game. A member of the opposing Shirt team follows him, picks up his fanny pack at courtside, takes out a blood sugar meter, puts a strip in the meter, holds out a lancet.

While Skin pricks his finger, Shirt opens a juice box, knowing it will be needed. They both look at the blood sugar meter, then Shirt hands over his juice box. While Skin sips juice, Shirt opens some peanut butter crackers, gives several to Skin, munches a few himself.

Ten minutes pass, then Shirt again gets his meter ready. Skin pricks his finger. Both boys look at the meter reading, and only then is the first word of this entire interaction uttered. Both boys say, “Ready!” then together jump back into game.

One of Skin’s teammates passes him the ball, Shirt rushes to cover his man, and the game goes on.

“Skin,” as you might have guessed, is my own son, David. Dropping him off for the first time at Camp Joslin, at age 8, only four months after his diagnosis was one of the hardest things my husband and I ever had to do, but it was one of the best. What’s so special about diabetes camp is the wordless understanding, the knowledge born of experience that everyone with diabetes has to jump out of the game of life to do some annoying task of taking care of diabetes. At Joslin, and so many other wonderful diabetes camps around the country, the kid with diabetes does not take that step out of the game alone. He steps out with support and a band of brothers behind him. And the player of the game does not worry that he is letting his teammates down, or that once his blood sugar is back up there won’t be a place for him in the game.

What do diabetes camps offer?
As you may have already gathered, diabetes camp, like any other summer camp, is for fun. Kids do the same activities–from rock climbing to team sports to art–as any other camps. In fact, as diabetes camps have become more and more popular over the years, they offer endless options. There are day camps and sleep-away camps, girls- or boys-only camps, family camps, camps specializing in horseback riding, basketball, or scuba diving.

But beyond these activities, diabetes camps are so much more. Because all the other kids and the counselors share this condition (and so may the medical and other staff members), your child will learn she’s not the only one with diabetes. Camp is where many kids learn how to give themselves shots for the first time, or use a pump by themselves, or learn the newest technology. If they’re newly or recently diagnosed, they will see older campers, counselors, and staff who live happy, healthy, active lives with type 1 diabetes. They will learn they are not alone with diabetes and that there are a lot of other kids just like them. Whatever frustration your child feels about having diabetes and its daily management, it is felt and understood by everyone else. Campers feel free to express their feelings, because there are so many others who have been there, done that, and gone beyond it. These are important and empowering experiences.

A typical day at camp might start at dawn, when everyone wakes up and tests their blood sugars, followed by the day’s first insulin dose and a breakfast that fits into their individual meal plan. During the day, blood tests, insulin therapy, and meals are scheduled between activities. Campers’ diabetes control often improves while at camp. This happens because activity and meals are scheduled with a flow that helps prevent lows or highs. There’s healthy food, with carb counts and serving sizes usually posted for everyone to see. Skilled eyes–including doctors and nurses–are looking at blood sugars and overall health several times a day, and adjustments in insulin doses are made on a daily basis to meet every child’s needs.

How much does it cost?
Most, but not all, diabetes camps cost money. The fees vary depending on the type of camp and how long it lasts. For families who may not be able to afford the fee, there are often scholarships available. Sometimes the camp itself has a payment plan or offers scholarships (“camperships”) for a certain number of campers. Otherwise, doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies are also good sources for help.

How do we find a camp?
To see if there’s one that looks right for you, check the Web (try http://www.diabetescamps.org/ or www.childrenwithdiabetes.com/camps. Remember, you can relax knowing your child is in a safe environment. If you have questions about any aspect of a camp you are considering, have an open, honest discussion with camp staff before you sign up.

Friends for life
Camp can also set the stage for long-term friendships that can make a difference later in life. I have three very close friends, Jay, Paul, and Joe, who enjoy a special friendship forged over 40 years ago during their summers at Camp Joslin. When his parents wanted to send him away to a special diabetes camp, Paul remembers that he had no idea why: “I didn’t want diabetes to be my specialty.” But he had such a good time that he ended up managing the camp himself many years later. “My goal was to give them what I got–the skills and the emotional support to take away and use anywhere for the rest of your life,” he says. Joe says, “These friendships have been a source of courage, strength and inspiration all my life, and I might add that it gave my parents a much-needed break!” I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all three are living happy, healthy lives with diabetes. They’ll tell you they had fun, tried things for the first time like they might have at any camp, but more importantly they made lifelong friendships and learned how to win at their most important game: life with diabetes.