Children with asthma can breathe easy at camp

On a cool Friday morning, on the grass outside the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, a group takes a quiz about asthma. The interesting thing about the question-and-answer session is that the participants are not medical students but elementary and middle school students.

Asthma education is how they start each day at Spacer Camp, a summer camp sponsored by the American Lung Association for children 7 to 11 who have asthma. It’s called Spacer Camp in reference to the device that ensures inhalers deliver the correct amount of medicine. The association runs four of the weeklong camps in Delaware, two in the Wilmington area and one each in Dover and Lewes.

Asthma is a growing concern, especially among children. A 2005 report from Delaware Health and Social Services estimates that 23,400 children in the state, or about 11.5 percent, have asthma. That’s the first time the state examined asthma in children, although according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national rate rose from 3.6 percent in 1980 to 9 percent in 2001, the most recent year for which data are available.

“Asthma camp gives kids a traditional, regular camp with a boost — you get that additional medical support,” said Carol Chu, the association’s regional director of asthma camps. “It helps them understand their asthma and their illness. It also covers what triggers their asthma, how to manage it better, about the medication they’re taking.”

For the children, though, the camp is more than education; it’s also fun.

Quizzes and activities

The final day of the association’s first weeklong camp begins with a review of what the children have learned throughout the week.

“What kind of sounds do you make when you have an asthma attack?” volunteer Brian Schiff asks the group.

Eight-year-old Ben Deal of Hockessin has the answer. “I know, like this,” he exclaims, then makes a snorting noise.

Schiff, like many volunteers at the camp, is a respiratory therapy student at Delaware Technical & Community College. Other volunteers are teens earning service hours.

“Do people sneeze when they have an asthma attack?” Schiff asks.

“No, they cough,” Ben says.

Of course, despite all the knowledge they’re learning about the serious nature of asthma, they’re still children. After Schiff poses a question about cigarettes, he has to stamp out a rumor.

“No, nicotine’s not in donuts,” he says, sparking a contest over which camper ate the most donuts.

(The winner, by the way, was 9-year-old Katie Georgi of Newark, who claimed to have consumed eight mini-donuts in one sitting.)

On most days, the morning education session is followed by physical activities or field trips. Trips taken during duPont Hospital’s asthma camp included canoeing on the Brandywine River, bowling, a program with NASA and a trip to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

The four camps around the state have different activities because of their locations.

“Each camp is unique,” Chu said. “Lewes does ocean activities rather than Ben Franklin or canoeing the Brandywine.”

Katie, the donut champion, said her favorite trip was canoeing. “It was on the Brandywine, and you got to go swimming at the halfway stop,” she said.

This morning, however, the review is followed by a game of Asthma Jeopardy. The 15 campers are divided into two teams and compete in categories such as “pathophysiology,” “triggers” and “tobacco.”

The children expertly answer questions about equipment and medicines, even using proper technical terminology.

They answer most of the questions quickly, but one nearly stumps them.

“What gas do we exhale?” one of the volunteers asks.

Emily Guilday, 11, of Wilmington consults with her team, but no one knows the answer. She ponders the question, then timidly responds: “Carbon dioxide? Yes! Yes. No! Yes!”

Despite her initial uncertainty, she gets it right.

Everyone learns something

For Joe Ciarlo Jr., a DelTech respiratory therapy instructor, Spacer Camp is a win-win situation for the campers and the college students he teaches.

“Our students are learning to be respiratory therapists,” he said. “Being able to work with asthmatic children, they get to teach them about their disease and how to manage it.”

The American Lung Association has been running asthma camps in Delaware for more than 25 years, Chu said. The program at duPont Hospital has been offered since 1997.

Ultimately, the program helps children learn to deal with their asthma.

“I have learned that you should check your peak flow two times a day, and that you should go to a doctor if your peak flow’s in the red zone,” Katie said. “You should drink water, not soda, and you should not smoke because it can turn your lungs black.”

The camp’s success goes beyond testimonials. In 2003, Ciarlo, duPont Hospital respiratory care director Tim Cox and others published a study in Respiratory Care, the science journal of the American Association of Respiratory Care. The results, based on entry and exit tests taken by the campers, showed significant increases in knowledge of pathophysiology, triggers, medicine and other areas.

According to Chu, the children gain more than knowledge.

“A lot of these kids realized for the first time they’re not alone.”

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