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Camp is a labor of  love for health professionals

 August 17,

(WINTHROP, Maine) - Every August for more than a dozen years, Portland-based asthma and allergy doctor Jon Musmand has packed his stethoscope with his sleeping bag and headed to Maine's only overnight camp for children with asthma where he volunteers as the program's Medical Director. This week at AH! Asthma Camp, Dr. Musmand joins with health care colleagues from all over the state, whose day jobs as physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists take a back seat as they volunteer their time and expertise to a group of 32 children with severe asthma, many of whom have never been away from home before. 

Asthma Campers are joining more than 170 other campers at the State of Maine YMCA Camp on Lake Cobbosseecontee in Winthrop.   MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center and the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital, is the primary sponsor of the camp. Major co-sponsors this year are Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine and TDBanknorth.

In addition to health professionals who volunteer their own time, three hospitals (Maine Medical Center, St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, and Southern Maine Medical Center) provide release time for staff clinicians to work at camp.  CEOs from MaineHealth, Southern Maine Medical Center, Maine Medical Center, and Anthem will converge at AH! Camp today for a friendly competition with campers and the clinical staff.  Bill Caron, MaineHealth's CEO, says he looks forward to visiting asthma camp every year to personally thank the clinicians who make the program possible.

How does Asthma Camp differ from other summer camp experiences?  Drop-off day is pretty much like any other camp, if you don't count the boxes of carefully marked asthma medications and devices, and the overly-anxious family members, many of whom are saying goodbye to their children for their first-ever overnights away from home.  Doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists on duty reassure parents that their children will have round-the-clock medical coverage. 

Asthma Campers take part in all the typical summer camp activities like swimming, kayaking, and arts and crafts - with one big addition.  Every day, they take part in hour long lessons on asthma self management, many learning for the first time how to take care of their asthma themselves.  According to Rhonda Vosmus, an experienced respiratory therapist and certified asthma educator based at Maine Medical Center who doubles as the Camp Coordinator, the kids who are selected to attend Camp tend to have numerous emergency room visits.  "Two of this year's campers have spent time this year in intensive care. We want to do everything we
can to help these kids and their families understand how they can avoid preventable hospitalizations," she pointed out.  In addition to special lessons, Asthma Campers stop in at the medical office twice a day to check air flows and medications - visits that are likely to be rewarded with a frosty Popsicle by the good-natured medical crew. 

Aided by Vosmus, Dr. Musmand and other members of the medical team routinely review each child's medical records and double check medications. Many of the clinicians who volunteer for asthma camp duty come back year after year - despite the fact that they don't get paid, sleep on bunk beds, and eat camp food (although it's of excellent quality, according to first-hand reports).  In fact, last year's entire complement of medical staff couldn't wait to sign up again, according to Vosmus, who starts working each January with a small committee to recruit potential campers and tend to all the details that keep the operation running smoothly. 

Camp does provide a few perks for the clinical staff - no white coats are necessary, and instead of stuffy exam rooms, fresh air and sunshine are available in unlimited quantities.  It's also a chance to really connect with kids who need help, according to Jody O'Farrell, a registered respiratory therapist and health coach whose "real" job is providing telephonic counseling and coaching to patients with all kinds of respiratory diseases.  O'Farrell, who lives in Gray, says that she volunteers to spend her vacation time at Camp because she sees first hand what a great impact it has on kids' lives.  "Even the young ones learn how to use their medicine correctly, and how to stay away from things that trigger their asthma."  This summer is O'Farrell's third consecutive Asthma Camp.  Her goal?  "To keep on coming, as long as there are kids with
asthma here in Maine."

Maine has the second highest rate of adult asthma in New England, behind Massachusetts, and the highest rate of asthma among children in the region. More than 28,000 children in Maine under the age of 18 have asthma, over 13% of the population.  The disease is responsible for more school absences than any other chronic health condition.  Since 1998, MaineHealth's AH! Asthma Health program has been working to improve outcomes among children and adults throughout Maine, in collaboration with community partners such as the American Lung Association of Maine and the Maine Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.  For more information about the AH! Asthma Health Program, visit the MaineHealth website at www.mainehealth.org and click on "Health Information for Patients." 

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