By Andrew Housman
Aimee Kaldas, Wagner College Physician Assistant Program student and Double H Ranch counselor-for-a-week, had just started a camp sing-along about drinking water. It’s an activity her group does every twenty minutes to keep her kids hydrated — and to prevent a sickle cell crisis for those affected with the condition.
It turns out none of this stopped them from having fun.
“You don’t want these kids to be focused on their illness the whole time,” Kaldas said. “You’re not treating a disease, you’re treating a patient.”
Students in the second professional year of Wagner College’s PA program leave the classroom each summer to volunteer at Double H Ranch, a sleepaway camp for children who suffer from serious medical diagnoses.
“Wagner students get to see the other side of medicine,” said Jacqui Royael, Director of Operations at Double H, located at the foothills of the Adirondacks in Lake Luzerne, New York.
The experience has shown PA students like Miriam Mikhail how to “become a provider that’s more understanding and more loving towards patients,” as she put it, while they learn about the importance of interacting with them as individuals.
“I think it taught me to not look at the condition but look at the person,” Mikhail added, echoing Kaidas.
Founded by philanthropist Charles R. Wood and actor Paul Newman, Double H seeks to ensure that these diagnoses never define patients as individuals — a philosophy that Dr. Nora Lowy, Executive Director of Wagner’s PA Program, called “person-centered care.” Lowy started the program a decade ago as a way to enroll her students in a clinical program that could teach them the importance of healthcare as a service.
“I was always looking for ways to expand their learning process,” said Lowy, who spent more than two decades leading Wagner’s PA program, left four years ago to build a PA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and then returned to Wagner this summer. “They need to understand that patients are more than just their diagnoses; they’re people with lives.”
That’s why Lowy chose Double H — where campers range from ages 6 to 16 and whose conditions include blood disorders and neuromuscular issues — for its commitment to providing the best medical care possible for its campers while making sure to not disrupt their activities.
“At all times they’re having fun, but at all times they’re very carefully being medically monitored,” Lowy said, citing IV drips during campfire sessions and specially designed wheelchair skis during the winter as examples.
Conversations with the campers never veered towards medical discussion, either, Mikhail said.
“The camp makes it normal for kids with conditions that don’t leave the house and the hospital to ride ziplines and shoot arrows in archery,” she said.
Lowy sees a remarkable transformation in her students within the span of a week, a phenomenon she attributes to making such a personal experience as part of the curriculum.
“You’re taking them out of the traditional box and inspiring them to be compassionate, but you’re also teaching them,” Lowy said.
“They become passionate about their career choice, about providing quality care,” Lowy said.
Perhaps most importantly, Double H Ranch allows Wagner PA students to understand that their campers’ daily routines and personalities help paint a much bigger picture of patients and their illnesses than would a medical textbook.
“We are more than a clinician or a provider,” Mikhail said. “We’re humans that need to see them as human, too.”