Juvenile diabetes is scary. Last week your kid was just a kid, now he’s one of the two to three million Americans living with type 1 diabetes. How do you let him be a kid, running, playing, and rough-housing with other kids? Just letting him go to school every day is frightening. And staying overnight with his friends? Not a chance. Who would see that he takes his insulin, eats the amount of food he needs, or watch for low blood sugar if he doesn’t? You don’t mean to be so over-protective but what else can you do?
Just as soon as he’s old enough, send him to a summer camp for children with diabetes. My son was six in March of 1978 and he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in October of that year, just before Halloween… a whole new trick or treat challenge, but that’s another story. Camp opened up an entire new world for us as a family dealing with frightening fact of juvenile diabetes.
We learned of such camps through our son’s doctor, Sam Wentworth, a specialist in juvenile diabetes. Sam believes that kids need to learn about their disease and how to take care of themselves while still being kids. Today I can’t think of a better place than camp for kids to learn and have fun at the same time, but back then I was terrified.
My son was eight the year we decided to try camp. Then I balked, panic stricken. What if he gets so busy he forgets to eat? What if his blood sugar drops, as it so often does? Who will be there for him if he has a seizure? Who will give him his insulin? “Stop,” my husband said. “Just stop and think. Where will his doctor be? Where will all the nurses who normally see him be? At camp. All of them and more. And weren’t we told that many counselors are diabetic, themselves?” Oh, right. So we agreed that since it was his first time away from home, one week would be enough.
We got Jim registered, packed, and tried to get him excited about going to camp, but that didn’t work. He really didn’t want to go but we thought it would be best that he at least give it a try. I was still a bit iffy about it, too. Twenty-five miles from home and no phone calls allowed. And, yes, I did try it the first year, but nope, no phone calls.
When we arrived at the camp, Sam was there to meet us and welcome Jim to his first year at diabetes camp. He pointed out where to go for check-in, showed us the dining hall, infirmary, and reassured us… me… that Jim would be fine and he would have a good time. Before he left us he asked what we wanted Jim to learn that year. Learn? I have no idea. Well, he suggested, how about how to give his own insulin injections? At eight? Sure, no problem.
I was a complete basket case that first year. I worried. I didn’t sleep well. I cried. I phoned and was told that he was doing fine and no, I could not talk with him. Jim sent a letter home with a picture of a sad face, one tiny tear on the cheek, and the words “please come and get me”. Fortunately, that letter didn’t come until just about the time we were to pick him up or I would have made a frantic drive to the camp, ready to snatch away my little boy. Later, when I asked him about it, he said, “What letter?” So, remember that homesickness is overcome by fun and activities.
He had fun. He hiked and swam and cooked outside. He played ball and ran and played just like any other kid. And everyone he played with had the same disease he has. He learned that he’s not the only one who has to weigh his food and check his blood sugar and take shots twice a day and sometimes has seizures. And he learned to give himself his shots.
One year we arrived to pick him up and were walking to the pick-up area and saw Sam heading in our direction. He wanted to reassure us that Jim’s night in the infirmary was just a precaution. Jim had had a seizure one busy evening and they wanted to watch him for the night. You know, the first year that would have sent me into a frenzy but not now. Seizures are scary as hell but they happen and the camp medical staff was excellent. They’re the same people who helped me to learn how to care for my son.
Not only does camp do wonders for the kids, it’s a break for mom and dad. Someone else is shouldering the responsibility for two weeks. Yes, the second year we stretched the camping session to two weeks. The year Jim said he would rather not go I firmly told him it was not optional. I looked forward to that time of relaxing my guard, of not keeping one ear awake to listen for abnormal sounds that may indicate a seizure, of eating junk food. And friendships form not only between the kids, but between parents. We found parents who had the same worries and fears and we had someone to talk with who actually understood.
Jim continued to go to camp until he was into his teens. I can’t begin to express my appreciation for all that he learned there. Every year we were asked what we wanted him to learn that season. One year it was to review his diet, another to review weighing his food. The camp staff taught him to swim. They gave him the knowledge that he’s not alone. They gave him the tools to take care of his health for life.
The Diabetes Education and Camping Association has what looks like a complete list of camps in the United States, Canada, and internationally. Or ask your doctor for a recommendation. If money is a consideration, some scholarships are offered are most camps. And don’t hesitate to ask; that’s what it’s for. Sending him to camp will be one of the best things you can do for your diabetic child.