Is there anything positive we can say about having asthma?" asked nurse Barbara Finch after listening to a roomful of children describe the symptoms they've experienced as asthma sufferers.
"Well, you don't have to run as fast as everyone else," offered 8-year-old Hollie Miller, of Delta, Pa.
It wasn't exactly the answer Finch was looking for as she addressed the group of 20 children at Harford County's first summer camp for children with asthma -- Camp Superkids -- held last week on the grounds of Harford Community College.
"I was leading up to the fact that at least asthma is a disease you can control and that there are things children can learn to do to help themselves," she said later, after the campers headed off to arts and crafts activities during the first day of the camp at the college, the newest site for the American Lung Association of Maryland's one-week day camps for children with asthma.
dTC The association runs 10 such camps across Maryland, from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, in an effort to improve the abilities of children affected by asthma to handle the disease. The camps challenge the children in a controlled environment.
Most of the children who took part in the day camp proved to be surprisingly well-informed on the illness that affects two million children in the United States.
They knew that asthma is a respiratory disease that causes their air passages to narrow and their muscles to tighten, making breathing difficult. They could name the various allergens they were sensitive to, and some even had the anatomical terminology -- like bronchi and trachea and larynx -- down pat.
But no amount of technical knowledge from Mom and Dad or their doctors can give them the emotional boost that being physically active with other asthmatics in a group situation does, says camp coordinator Mary Jo Smith.
"Being able to see other kids with the same problems you have having fun despite their condition can be a big confidence booster," says Smith, of the ALA of Maryland. "They see that you can go swimming and you can enjoy the outdoors, you just have to take your medicine and learn to recognize when trouble might be coming on."
A wide range of things can trigger an asthma attack, says Finch, who is director of staff development at Harford Memorial Hospital, co-sponsor of the Harford County camp. For most of the campers, the villains are pollen, animal dander and dust.
Food, smoke and cold weather can bring on trouble, too, says Finch, who has been conducting asthma education classes for children and adults at HMH about five years.
Camp leaders spent the week helping the youngsters, who ranged in age from 5 to 12, to recognize and cope with the first signs of an attack under a controlled situation so that in the future they can cope with it on their own.
"The point is to eventually mainstream the kids into regular day camps," says Smith. By next year, she says, some of the children in the camp held this past week should be able to go off to regular summer camps.
There are long-term benefits, too, to teaching children to recognize the onset of breathing difficulties, says Sandra Fields, ALAM's regional director for Harford and Cecil counties. "Some of the nicest feedback we've gotten from the schools is that they are seeing fewer visits to the school nurse and less absence because of illness," she says.
The ALAM held its first asthma camp in 1988 at Loyola College. Since then the program has grown to include 10 camps across the state, each one co-sponsored by a medical institution. This year, the goal was to expand into Harford and Cecil counties, says Fields, not only because the counties' population is growing rapidly but also because the incidence of asthma is increasing.
"Not only is asthma being recognized more, but there are a lot more irritants in our environment today that bring it into the forefront," says Finch.
The ALA reports that as many as 7 percent of all youngsters in the U.S. experience asthma at some time. In Harford County, there were 1,686 reported cases of pediatric asthma in 1989, the last year for which statistics are available.
Tuition to any of the ALAM's one-week asthma camps is $30.
The camps are otherwise supported by the non-profit organization's fund-raising efforts, like Christmas Seals, and the co-sponsoring institutions.
At HCC, each day at Camp Superkids began with an hour-long session of asthma education. That meant the youngsters did everything from sharing tips -- like drinking hot tea or trying deep breathing when an attack threatens -- to listening to their lungs with a stethoscope.
After the educational hour, though, it was just like any other day camp a 10-year-old might attend -- some arts and crafts projects, some science experiments, some hiking outdoors and a dip in the pool at the end of the day.
There was just enough physical activity to test the children, so that if they experienced some shortness of breath outdoors or a reaction to an allergen in the air they could deal with the symptoms under the close supervision of physical therapists and nurses.
By mid-week, the kids became familiar with one another enough to exchange stories about their asthma, to openly ask for their medicine before going outside and to use their inhalers in front of one another, something most children ordinarily are reluctant to do, says Finch.
"Having asthma doesn't mean giving up something you like completely, but learning to do it despite your illness," says Finch.