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Ask a Camp Director: What happens if my child gets sick at camp?

Throughout the summer I field many questions from parents about our policies at Camp Walt Whitman. Since so many of my answers could easily apply to other camps, I’ve created this forum to answer the most common questions parents ask about sleepaway camp. Feel free to submit yours here for a future column.

Just like at home, children sometimes do get sick. The only difference is that when it happens when they are with us at camp, we have a fully staffed medical team in our Health Center who will care for them. As parents, this may feel frightening, as you have always been the ones to care for your child when he/she is ill, but chances are your child is not doing as badly as you might be imagining back at home. You might also feel upset that your child, who you sent to camp to have the time of his/her life, is sick at camp, but it does not have to ruin your child’s summer, or yours. This is why communication is so essential between camp and parents.  

When campers get sick at camp they can visit our Health Center. This air-conditioned building is staffed by 6 nurses, a doctor, a student nurse, and an Athletic Trainer. These well-trained medical professionals are at camp to provide care and support to children who aren’t feeling well. While campers can visit the Health Center throughout the day for anything urgent, there are set times during the day (after breakfast and after dinner) when the doctor has hours.  

Camp councelor taking care of a sick child while at Camp Walt Whitman

All of our camp doctors are current camp parents who work as pediatricians or general practitioners during the year and take a week of “vacation” to work at camp. They are all currently licensed and obtain a temporary NH license to join us. Just like any staff member joining us for the first time, we do reference checks and background checks on all of our medical staff.  

The Health Center is a busy place at camp. Some campers come simply because they are looking for some TLC from a maternal figure, in which case they are given a hug and sent on their way.  But campers may come to the Health Center for a variety of ailments. With 400 campers, you can imagine the array of reasons that children come to the Health Center: Bug bites, splinters, cuts, scrapes, bruises, concussions, in-grown nails, coughs, sore throats, earaches, rashes, nausea, diarrhea, ticks, headaches, injured fingers, wrists, ankles or knees, fevers, colds, flus, acne, broken braces, asthma, fatigue, dehydration, allergies, itchy eyes, and so on. The job of the Health Center staff is to correctly diagnose the problem, provide treatment, prevent contagion, communicate with camp staff and with parents, and get the child back to activities as quickly as possible.  

Most ailments that children present are simply treated (and recorded) on the spot with follow-up instructions. For example, should a child have a splinter, the nurse or doctor will remove and clean the splinter and schedule the child to return later that day just to take a quick peek and make sure there are no issues.  However, if a child has a fever and is going to be kept in the Health Center, or put on medication by the camp doctor, or needs to be sent out of camp to see a different doctor, we always call the parent or parents so that you and your child will have an opportunity to speak with each other.  

Sometimes, parents considering camp have fears of their child suffering a health issue greater than a splinter or a fever. While rare, if a camper suffers from something more serious, like a broken arm, the camp directors will call the child’s parents to determine the best plan of action. Sometimes, depending on the issue, it simply doesn’t make sense for a child to stay at camp.  Sometimes it makes sense for a child to go home for a short period and then return to camp once he or she is comfortable. And other times a child wants to stay and doesn’t want to miss a day of camp. We try to make the best individual plan on a case-by-case basis. 

It’s unusual for a camper to have the kind of health concern during summer that would warrant a phone call home. However, we are parents too, so we make sure that any child who isn’t feeling well at camp is well cared for and gets lots of extra TLC. If you are still curious about health protocols at camp, you can always ask the camp director(s) directly about your specific questions.