Being a camp doctor is the most rewarding physician job I’ve ever had

Even after all this time, the phone calls aren’t always easy to make.

“Hi, Mrs. Smith, this is Dr. Kass at camp, don’t worry, everything is OK.” I usually get that out in one breath, then immediately transition to concrete details. “It’s a finger. It might be broken.” It doesn’t matter if I’m calling about a cough, a fever or a bite from the camp pet pig — I know that the second a mom or dad hears my voice, their minds race to a worst-case scenario. For a couple of weeks every summer, instead of my regular job of being an emergency physician, I’m a camp doctor.

My 9-year-old daughter is away for the whole summer.  So I know, first hand, how hard it is to send your kids off for days or weeks at a time. As the buses drive away, part of your heart goes with them. You’re happy that they’re learning new things and gaining a sense of independence — but you can’t wait for them to come home.  You process your anxiety by reminding yourself of the memories they’re creating, the friends they’re making, and the low likelihood of anything bad actually happening.

Camp doctoring is a hybrid job. I am part parent, part doctor, part therapist. I am always on call. No particular specialty prepares you for the role and the issues on any given day are unpredictable. I treat rashes, ear infections, sore throats, broken bones AND broken braces!  At camp, I have to adjust my approach to diagnosis and treatment and reframe my perspective on what needs to be treated “right away.” Sometimes, I even head an infection control team trying to contain that inevitable first case of impetigo or lice.

And, of course, there are times when children need to be sent home or to the hospital. Fourteen million American kids attend some sort of camp every summer. From the mundane to the extreme, camp doctors have seen it all.

The most challenging cases are the ones that could be something or nothing or anything in between.  Is the stomach pain in a 10-year-old girl appendicitis, constipation or a clinical manifestation of homesickness?  With twice daily sick calls and a health center open 24/7, I see kids earlier in their clinical course than they would present to an emergency department or pediatrician’s office.  I can also see them every day and more than once a day.

Which is why, at camp, I frequently wait and see.  Many camp doctors will watch a child closely to determine if a rash needs antibiotics or if a cough will turn into something serious. We also call parents and ask “Has anything like this happened before?” or “What do you think it is?”

So what’s the draw?  It’s simple, really. Being a camp doctor is the most rewarding physician job I’ve ever had.

Children at camp expand their autonomy in unexpected ways. They start taking ownership of their own health. I teach the campers to impart their own medical histories and how to advocate for their own health needs. I empower them to remember to ask for and take their medications without relying on a grownups’ constant attendance- even if we are double checking on them in the background.

“Look,” I tell them. “Your rash is getting better. Make sure to let me know if it comes back and we can start that cream again.”

Nevertheless, if I am being truly honest, while the doctoring is a great job, it’s being at camp that’s the incredible experience.

Camp is a magical place, and that magic doesn’t just touch the campers.  Every year, when I step onto the camp grounds, the rest of the world fades away. My days are blessedly free from Twitter, Facebook and the 24/7 anxiety provoking news cycle, that in large part, defines our current political climate.  Going screen-free at camp is as restorative for me as it is for my daughter.

At camp, I watch kids play sports and sing songs without fear of being judged. Campers who might be shy or self-conscious at school perform original skits, in front of hundreds of people, in costumes they design themselves. I am awestruck by little boys and girls learning independence and realizing that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Behind the scenes, at every great camp, there are scores of great grownups.  These people, varying in age from 25 to 65, have become my camp friends.  During the day we work hard, and at night we try to decompress.  I didn’t take this job to find a new family, but somehow it was part of the package.

At camp, I am Dr. Kass, and also Hannah’s mom.  The identity struggle I feel as a female physician melts away. At camps, I’ve learned, the majority of doctors are women, and almost every one is a parent.  When my 5-year-old son stops at the health center and gives me a kiss on his way to the canteen, it’s a sweeter midday jolt than any triple espresso.

Today, when physician burnout rates are so concerning, figuring out how to be a clinician and caregiver while remaining true to oneself is something of a new Holy Grail.

At camp, I feel I’ve found it.

Camp doctoring isn’t for everyone. The job is unpredictable. You’re constantly learning on your feet. You work with a highly invested nursing team in close quarters and communicate with the camp director on a frequent basis.  And then there are the parents — grownups of wildly varying temperaments and levels of anxiety. They relinquish control each summer and send their little ones off by themselves, with the best of intentions, and look to you to provide answers that, very often, you simply don’t have.

But always, and more frequently than you might think, there are those interactions that make it all worthwhile. Like calling a mom to tell her that her son needs stitches, and as you are asking for consent she cuts you off and says, “Don’t worry, I trust you. Thank you for taking such great care of my son. If I can’t be there, I am glad he’s with you.”

At those times, you feel fulfilled and suddenly so grateful for so much in your own life. “This,” you think to yourself, smiling without even realizing it, “this is what camp is all about.”

Dara Kass is an emergency physician and founder, FemInEm.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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