Children’s Health: Summer programs turn sick kids into happy campers

Across Canada, special camps offer rewarding experiences for children with cancer, learning disabilities and other conditions

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A boy with bone cancer had lost the use of his affected leg. Still weak and recovering from chemotherapy, he went to Camp Oochigeas, a camp for children with cancer in Rosseau, Ont., where he dreamed of water-skiing. Living up to the camp motto, “You have only failed if you have failed to try,” he got behind the boat each day and attempted, unsuccessfully, to water-ski. On his last day at camp, he was the last skier in his group and, like the days before, he fell over and over again each time he tried to ski on one leg. On his last attempt something connected and he was able to stand on the ski.

Dr. David Malkin, a pediatric cancer specialist and the camp medical director, who was in the motorboat pulling the boy, turned around and saw him zipping around the lake on one ski. “I was bawling my eyes out. We got back to the dock and he had the biggest smile you can imagine.”

It’s moments like this that have kept Malkin coming back to the camp since he first went in 1987. Now the director of the cancer genetics program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, he considers his annual time at “Ooch” a highlight of his year.

“The opportunity at camp is quite remarkable. You see kids who, a week before, were literally bedridden and not really wanting to do very much, and they’re tired and cranky and feeling very unwell, and then you get them up to camp and within hours there’s this complete transformation, and these kids become highly independent and energetic, and are challenging themselves to do all kinds of activities.” Oochigeas runs all summer and most campers stay two weeks.

“I think camp is a good experience for most kids, in general, and kids with chronic illness or disability would be included in that. The challenge is that most kids with chronic illness or disability have needs or requirements that can’t easily be met at regular camp,” says Dr. Jon Kronick, chief of pediatrics at the IWK Hospital in Halifax.

Most children with chronic illness are not allowed to register for traditional summer camp because of their need for close medical supervision or because they are physically unable to participate in camp activities. Yet camps that do accommodate children with chronic illness or disability have been operating in Canada for many years, and several new state-of-the-art facilities have recently been built so that even more children with special needs can experience camp. Most camps accept boys and girls ages six to 18, and many offer full or partial funding to help parents offset the cost of sending a child to one of these camps, which tends to run about $2,000 a week.

Whether it’s the fresh air, physical activity or new-found independence, parents report their children come home physically and mentally revived. Medical studies that have evaluated the benefits of camp also support this.