Celebrating 30 Years of Camp Discovery, with Susan Boiko, MD

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Boiko discusses the annual weeklong summer camp for children and adolescents with skin diseases to make connections, experience camp with the support of volunteer specialists, and find comfort with their condition.

Every summer for the last 31 years, children with chronic skin diseases, specialists and nurses and volunteers have convened at Camp Discovery—a weeklong overnight camp intended to provide pediatric patients an opportunity to make new friends, experience the general adventures and joys of a summer camp without limitations from their disease, and find better self-confidence and solidarity among a group of kids that are just like them.

Started with the support of Mark V. Dahl, MD—who conceptualized the camp one summer in Minnesota and helped launched the first program in 1993—Camp Discovery today hosts approximately 300 pediatric patients annually across 5 sites in Minnesota, Texas, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California. It is supported entirely through the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the donations of its members and other organizations.

In an interview with HCPLive prior to her presentation on Camp Discovery at the Society for Pediatric Dermatology (SPD) 2024 Pre-AAD Meeting in San Diego, CA, this week, Susan Boiko, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at UC San Diego and a dermatologist at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, discussed the overall purpose and benefit of the camp.

“Imagine that you're a child with something that's very visible. And from the moment you can remember, people are looking at you,” Boiko told HCPLive. “The most important thing to know is that despite that difference that is visible or palpable, that's a child just like any other child. One of the wonderful things that I love about Camp is that kids say, 'For one week out of a year, I feel normal. I feel like I'm with my people. I feel like I can be unafraid to do exactly what I want, without other people questioning me’.”

Boiko said that this was the exact intent of Dahl’s vision more than 30 years ago. Today, children can enjoy swimming, boating, games and contests, waterskiing, horseback riding, and more with the support of volunteer clinicians at the camp—the very same children who may be subjected to bandaging and topical treatment for hours at a time, every day.

“Camp fulfills what others might see as impossible dreams, with your peers,” Boiko said “I remember one adult that I talked to who's been at camp for 27 years, as a counselor and a camper, who told me that he had never seen anyone with his rare skin disease until he met another kid at camp. So, that's a wonderful bonding experience for kids.”

The psychosocial impact of the camp may be immeasurable; Boiko and her peers have countless anecdotes of children and adolescents coming into an entirely new level of comfort with their disease simply from meeting someone else living with it too.

“We're just starting to see the very earliest research into these effects on dermatologic patients, but as an aspiring camp director through the American Camp Association, which has courses for camp directors, I'm aware of a very large body of literature about camps for children who have other diseases and conditions,” Boiko said. “And uniformly, they impact the campers by increasing their confidence, increasing their perseverance, and increasing their self-esteem—which not only leads to classroom achievement as younger people, but carries on through college.”

Headed into its fourth decade, Camp Discovery has benefited from many former young campers turning to adult volunteers. Boiko noted the potential of camps like this evolving to cater to these same patients in their elderly years one day—a thought previously unimaginable. There’s no perceived limit to how many different offerings the coordinating camp team can create for their patients, partly because there’s been such little limit on the positive clinical, emotional and psychosocial benefit the campers have experienced.

“Even if you had just the day, maybe when kids are off like a federal holiday, and you brought everybody to your dermatology office and everybody just made crafts and had snacks and got to see their skin with the big magnifying glass—that might be another way of bringing that wonderful camp experience, even in a small dose,” Boiko said.

Learn more about Camp Discovery here.