Deselah Hawkins runs and plays with a yellow bag around her neck at Camp Tyler’s annual Asthma Camp. That little yellow bag means a lot of things to the 11-year-old - it’s lifesaving asthma medication, it’s a lesson to help her learn responsibility in managing her symptoms and it's a promise that she can be a normal child.
For more than 30 years children from all over the state have flocked to the camp, where they get a traditional camping experience while learning how to manage symptoms.
Members of Deselah’s family had attended the camp as children and recommended it to her parents. Pipper Binion-Stanberry, 10, said her mother had attended as well.
The camp is a partnership between Camp Tyler and UT Health Northeast. In addition to around-the-clock medical staff, the camp also utilizes respiratory therapist and nursing students from Tyler Junior College and UT Tyler as its counselors.
During a break from a game of dodge ball, Respiratory Therapist Christi Ann Guthrie sits her campers down for a science experiment, which helps them visualize fluids in the lungs and how they react to stressors.
“What are your triggers?” she asked, and the students souned off, listing everything from pet dander to fresh cut grass.
Dr. Patti Olusola works with the campers teaching them to integrate their symptom treatment into daily life as well as how to tell the difference between an allergic reaction and an asthma attack.
“We’re trying to teach them that they can do anything any other kid can do, in an environment with triggers all around,” she said.
The campers build confidence as they adventure through an environment filled entirely with common asthma and allergy triggers. They learn not to be afraid of leading a normal life and how to teach their parents best practices that will help alleviate their fear as well.
Camp Director Rhonda Scoby said she often has to assure parents their children are in good hands. In her 27 years of working with the camp, she has seen less than five serious asthma attacks at the camp. Some of her campers experience such severe symptoms they often are unable to leave the house. When they arrive at her camp, they fish, they swim, they hike through the woods and experience the joy that every camper deserves.
“When you have a disease when you’re a child, you feel like you’re the only one that’s going through that,” she said.
Scoby said she has seen countless success stories from campers who have gone on to become competitive athletes and active adults.
“We have kids come and learn from each other and learn to help their parents manage their asthma,” Scoby said. “It becomes just something they have, not something that determines what they can do in life.”
Many of the counselors once attended the camp as children and have returned as medical professionals or as part of a summer course that allows them a hands-on experience. They even get a grade toward their courses.
With the help of that little yellow bag, there is no way of knowing how many of the campers will return to teach a new generation that their condition cannot stop them from thriving.