My Experience as a camp doctor – 30 years taking care of kids at Camp Tapawingo

By: David Sundwall, MD

In 1988 I was asked by a colleague if I would be interested in volunteering to be a camp doctor at Camp Tapawingo, in the village of Sweden, Maine. At that time I was the Administrator of the Health Resource and Services Administration (HRSA), a very large agency in the U.S. Public Health Service, which understandably was a demanding and stressful job. While I was surprised at the request, thinking at first that it was out of the question, the woman who asked me was a senior staff member at HRSA, said that her daughter had attended this camp for a few years, and vouched for how special this place was. She said that her daughter was a brittle diabetic and that the camp was in need of “really good doctors” to care for the kids. Was she just being a sycophant, flattering me, or was this a legitimate opportunity for me to escape hot and steamy Washington DC for a few weeks in mid-summer and the pressures related to my position?

I was informed by others that this was a particularly good camp, dating back to 1919, and was attended primarily by Jewish girls. While it was not a “religious camp” it was established at a time when Jews were not always welcome at other camps, apparently due to broadly held anti-Semitic views [seems extraordinary now, but perhaps not, based on the recent rise of such sentiments world-wide]. Regardless, I determined to check it out and volunteer for a two week period, the last half of July.

I drove alone to Sweden, a village about an hour’s drive northwest of Portland, ME, and only about 15 miles from the border with New Hampshire. [At that time my wife was scheduled to drive out daughter to visit prospective colleges in the Northeast, but would come to visit the camp at the end of the college tour]. I was entranced with the beauty of this region – thick forests, dark lakes, and ferns everywhere along the roadsides (very different from Utah). When I arrived at the camp I was struck with the grand great lodge where most meals were taken and evening activities held, and the many group cabins along the periphery of a vast green lawn. I was taken to the doctor’s cabin, a two bedroom accommodation overlooking Keyes Pond, and adjacent to the small clinic where I was told I was expected to see “patients” at 9 am and 5 pm each day, as well as supervise the camp nurses who had a bedroom in the clinic. I was also told I would need to be available during the day and evenings to attend to any urgent problems that might arise. So, while I would be volunteering, i.e. not paid, this was not a bad gig – two full weeks of accommodations on a lovely pond for me and my family, all meals, plenty of time to visit the environs in the day (as long as I was reachable by phone), and all this during “high season” in Maine when prices for most tourists are fairly high. When my wife arrived at the end of the second week, she too was struck with the beauty and peacefulness of the place and we were hooked – have gone back for thirty consecutive years and become part of the community of “summer folks” in Sweden, Maine.

So, is being camp doctor an easy job, just taking care of minor injuries, rashes, viral infections, and homesick kids? While most of the clinic visits are for such relatively minor matters, you can never really relax. As might be expected among a group of 200+ people, including 120 -140 campers, plus as many as 70 counselors and staff, I have encountered several more serious medical problems. Over the years I have diagnosed, treated, and referred when necessary the following: serious injuries (fractures and lacerations requiring referral to the neighboring hospital in Bridgeton), Still’s Disease (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis), seizures (presenting as “drop attacks” in a girl from Mexico), idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura [ITP],  (decidedly not just another rash), appendicitis, an outbreak of pertussis among counselors (confirmed after camp – I had been treating these cases as “community acquired pneumonitis” with antibiotics with limited success). And a few years ago one of our senior councilors developed pneumonia with sepsis and I served as the ambulance driver taking her to the hospital in Bridgeton where she was promptly and appropriately treated, which likely saved her life.

So, if you are a physician or any licensed health provider of primary care, should you consider working (or volunteering) at a summer camp?  Absolutely! It has been a rich and rewarding experience for me and my family. We bought a lovely historic old farm house a mile from the camp in 1995 and summers in Sweden have become an integral and important part of our lives. This year we are celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Camp Tapawingo and can’t wait to join in the festivities while taking care of kids, councilors, and staff again.

Check out “Camp Tap” at http://www.camptapawingo.com/ .

Dr. Sundwall is a Professor (Clinical) Emeritus for the Department Family And Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, UT. Dr. Sundwall has also been a contributing member in the public health field for more than 30 years. After serving 24 years in Washington D.C. in multiple government and private health sectors, he returned to Utah. Since returning to the west, he has served as Director of the Utah Department of Health and continued work with the School of Medicine at the University of Utah.


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