Happy Camper

Happy Camper

Doug Armstrong, MS '99, comes by his passions honestly. His dad taught chemistry at Albion College, and his mom was a pharmacist. By 13, Armstrong had begun volunteering in a local hospital. At 17, he got his license as an emergency medical technician. He was so young he needed special permission from the state to do it. In high school and college he volunteered for an ambulance company before joining the U-M Health System's organ transplant program, where he helped retrieve and prepare organs for transplant.

"I was the guy carrying the cooler back," he remembers.

The transplant program led to nursing school and then to clinical research studies, which in turn led Armstrong to get an MS from U-M SPH in Clinical Research Design and Analysis.

Meanwhile, he continued to cultivate a boyhood passion—summer camp, which he'd attended from the age of six on. So when he had the chance in 1998 to take some transplant children from Michigan to a summer camp outside Pittsburgh, he jumped. On the first day of camp, he watched, wonderstruck, as the kids donned swimsuits and began comparing scars.

"Where's your scar?" they asked Armstrong.

That's when the lightbulb went off. Most of the kids had never been in a situation where anyone else had a scar. "What had been this huge self-image problem for them suddenly became this badge of courage," he realized. "To see this transformation in 10 seconds, it all clicked to me that this was something that I could continue and expand."

By 2003, Armstrong had helped create a summer camp in Oscoda, Michigan, for kids who'd had transplants. In 2016, he helped launch an even bigger camp, North Star Reach, on Patterson Lake near Pinckney, Michigan. Open free of charge to kids across the U.S. who've had serious illnesses, North Star Reach features a state-of-the-art health center and professional medical staff, as well as more traditional camp offerings like arts and crafts and swimming. There's even an accessible treehouse.

In its first summer, North Star Reach offered three week-long sessions, respectively, for children with organ transplants, cardiac health issues, and blood disorders. In the off-season the camp held family camp weekends. Going forward, Armstrong and his team plan to include additional sessions so that even more kids and families can attend.

"Camp gives kids the emotional, medical, and physical support needed to push beyond their limitations and boundaries and really get a sense of what they're capable of," Armstrong says. "We take kids where they don't think they can go—and certainly where parents don't think they can go." He cites research from Yale showing a correspondence between summer camp and improved health outcomes in children, including greater independence and self-esteem.

For Armstrong, the best part of running the camp is "all of the smiles and all of the transformations we get to witness—how much I take away as a practitioner and as a participant in that journey for those kids."

In this Findings Web Extra, Armstrong shares more about the camp.

Read more on North Star Reach.