When nearly a dozen children in the Augusta area died from asthma attacks in a period of just two years, Kitty Hernlen knew she had to act.
Hernlen, an associate professor of respiratory therapy at Georgia Regents University (GRU), formerly Medical College of Georgia, started the free Augusta Area Asthma Day Camp three years ago to give kids with asthma ages 6-13 all the joys of summer camp while learning how to stay safe with their condition.
One in ten Georgia children has asthma; and while kids 9 and under make up just 14 percent of the state’s population, they account for 36 percent of asthma-related visits to emergency rooms. The East Central public health district, encompassing Augusta and surrounding counties, has one of the highest rates in Georgia – over 3,300 visits annually. Statewide, 16 percent of children under 17 have asthma, as do nearly 300,000 across the United States. Rates are higher among boys, and two times higher among black children than whites.
Asthma, the leading cause of school absences among children with chronic diseases, is often undiagnosed. And among children who know they have asthma, the majority, do not have action plans in place.
Educating children and their families is crucial to managing the condition, says Hernlen, who has asthma herself and knows the challenges it presents.
Each morning, Hernlen and her crew of volunteers teach campers how to recognize the early signs of an asthma attack, what to do during an episode, how to use a peak flow meter and what the results mean, and how to determine their particular asthma triggers. They learn about medications and how to properly use their inhalers. Parents and guardians also attend an orientation and education session before camp begins.
The lessons have already made a change in the way Maurice McKie, 11, deals with the condition he has had all his life. “I used to think having a peak flow meter reading in the yellow zone was basically the same thing as green and I really didn’t have to watch out for that,” he said. “Now I know that yellow means be cautious and I may have to use my inhaler.”
The camp is also about fun – swimming, hiking, fishing, arts and crafts – so there’s plenty of time built into the schedule for the typical summer camp activities many of these kids don’t often get to do.
“This camp is a chance for kids with asthma to relax and just enjoy being a kid,” said Hernlen, who researches asthma management and education. “And since every child here has asthma, no one gets singled out as being ‘different.’ “
The campers are watched over by more than two dozen volunteer camp counselors, including GRU respiratory therapy students, faculty and alumni, Richmond County school nurses, private physicians, therapists from Georgia Regents Medical Center, and volunteers from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Asthma Management Program and the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) Asthma Awareness Coalition. Most, like many of the children, come back year after year, and ongoing relationships are built.
“Many of these kids are at the hospital a lot,” said Pam Usher, a pediatric respiratory therapist at Georgia Regents Medical Center who first volunteered as a student. “Seeing a familiar face really helps them. And for us, it’s good to know we have made an impact.”
The camp, co-sponsored by GRU and the CSRA Community Foundation, is funded by a grant from the W.G. Raoul Foundation. For more information, contact Kitty Hernlen at 706-721-3554 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the American Lung Association website at http://www.lung.org/about-us/our-impact/top-stories/prepare-to-go-back-to-school-with-asthma.html