Looking Across the Lake: Doctoring at a Girls Camp and a Boys Camp

By Stephen Rockower, MD

I grew up at camp. I went to my first overnight camp for 8 weeks at age 4, turning 5 that summer. My older siblings were there, and (as I remember) we had a co-ed bunk with female counsellors. I don’t remember being homesick or afraid in any way, and enjoyed my summer immensely. I continued at camps in the Poconos outside of my home in Philadelphia and then in Maine at Camp Powhatan for the next 15 summers. I rose from the youngest bunk in camp to the oldest, then “graduated” to being a CIT (counsellor in training) and a real counsellor. As a college student and counsellor, I was the coach to lead my Gray team in our annual color war, Red and Gray, to a smashing victory. It was one of the high points of my youth. Other pursuits took me away from camp for a few summers, but I always returned for a short time to visit. I chose to go to camp instead of yet another music festival in Bethel, New York the summer of 1969.

As I began my medical career in school and residency, camp disappeared from my view. When my son was born, I set my sights on returning. My wife prevailed to keep him home until age 8, but there I was again at Powhatan, walking the dirt roads of my youth. As the camp doctor, I was in my glory. The “elder statesman” of camp physicians, Dr. Stanley Walzer, spent much of the summer in and around camp providing much needed help to me in areas outside my expertise of orthopaedics. As a child psychiatrist, Stanley knew more about kids being away from home, and even knew a little medicine. At a boys’ camp, my orthopaedic training came in handy with the various sports injuries that came up. I occasionally took kids to the local ER for xrays, and spoke with the local orthopaedic surgeons who had to follow up (with a camp license, I was only able to practice at camp). I was able to reduce a counsellor’s shoulder dislocation on the porch of the main office fairly readily. I lanced and drained a boil, but worried the next week when I was home whether the rheumatologist following me could care for it.

As my daughter grew older and it was time for her to go to camp, she was enrolled at the girls’ camp on the next lake. I thought this would be a breeze, doing one week at the boys’ camp and then one at the girls’. I quickly discovered that the approach was vastly different. While I had to chase after the boys to take their medicines (and could trace them by following the blood trail), the girls lined up after each and every meal to be seen by me or the nurse. Yes, there were the usual sports injuries, but I discovered the psychic value of an ace bandage! I had to remind some girls that they couldn’t get out of swimming 3 weeks in a row because of their periods. As I was called “Abba” by my daughter (the Hebrew word for “father”), I became known to the camp as “Dr. Abba”.

So what did I get from being a camp doctor? A chance to see my kids at play in a less structured environment than soccer or baseball. A chance to interact with lots of other kids who have so many different needs and capabilities. A chance to sit by a lake in Maine for a week or two. A chance to see real stars at night. A chance for fresh air. The medicine has not been so tough, as I luckily never had to contend with scabies or other infectious diseases. I have enjoyed the interaction with the kids as they contended with being away from home. In the coming summers, I hope to go again, as my wife’s old camp is starting again, to begin new traditions and experience the joy of summer in Maine.