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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

Young Neurosurgery Patients Find Fun at Discover Camp

Laughter rang out at Discover Camp as some 20 children played Drip, Drip, Drop. The normally fast-paced game—imagine Duck, Duck, Goose, but with water spilling on each head instead of a pat—was a typical summer camp scene with one exception.

“Remember,” shouted one mother from the sidelines, “you don’t have to run.”

Her words were a reminder of how Discover Camp, an annual retreat for University of Chicago Medicine families and patients who were born with anomalies of the nervous system, differs from traditional camps. Many of these patients suffer from brain and spinal cord conditions that make excess physical exertion dangerous. Most of the patients have undergone neurosurgical treatment at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital.

Young Neurosurgery Patients Find Fun at Discover Camp

Now in its fourth year, Discover Camp gives them a safe space to have fun without overdoing it. Held in late July at Twin Mills campground in Howe, Indiana, this year’s event attracted more than 70 participants—18 families in all—with kids ranging from infancy to their early 20s. Neurosurgery chief David Frim, MD, PhD, the Ralph Cannon Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics, treats many of them and sponsors the parent-run camp.

“Pain is a huge factor in our lives,” said camp mother Michelle Wilson-Hartman, whose son and three daughters have Pseudotumor cerebri and Chiari malformation, disorders that put intense pressure on the brain and spinal cord. All four grapple with ongoing head and muscle aches, and have surgically inserted shunts to drain excess spinal fluid.

Discovery Camp kids at a playground

For a child living with a shunt, a round of dodge ball, football or a forceful trampoline jump could break the shunt and induce vomiting, blinding headaches or further intracranial stress. All Discover Camp activities, from crafts to a talent show, are designed with such factors in mind.

“We try to give these kids a chance to play and do activities that allow them some freedom,” said Janet Hutcheson, the camp’s main organizer. No one teases or judges if a child stops mid-game.

The supportive environment makes Discover Camp an anticipated event for families who typically see each other under more stressful circumstances. Many travel to the University of Chicago from out of state, some from as far as Oklahoma, and become close while staying at the Ronald McDonald House, at 5444 S. Drexel Avenue, during their children’s treatment.

Discover Camp is “a time to be in their own element with people who understand what they’re going through,” said Hutcheson, “to see that they are not alone in this battle.”