Camp puts smiles on faces of patients at cleft clinic

Summer camp is a rite of passage for kids, a place where they forge friendships, develop independence and participate in new activities and interests. For patients at the Cleft Lip and Palate Clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital, camp has proven to be especially important, says Dr. Laura Monson, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.

Monson’s research interest is on quality of life and depression and anxiety in the cleft lip and palate patient population. Camp puts smiles on faces of patients at cleft clinic

“In the surveys that we have done in clinic, we found that one of the main issues that these children face is with peer interactions. They don’t have friends who have clefts and have difficulty talking with the friends they do have about what they are going through. That was the impetus behind our new camp, called Camp Keep Smiling,” she said.

Patients undergo multiple procedures and require many hospitalizations and office visits through their teen years, she explained. They often miss school for these visits and also are taken out of class for their speech therapy, all of which call attention to the fact that they have a cleft. This can leads to difficulty with peer interactions and socialization, which can result in significant teasing and bullying.

Christy Hernandez, left, and Dr. Laura Monson
Christy Hernandez, left, and Dr. Laura Monson

The first Camp Keep Smiling was held in March and the second camp will be offered Sept. 19 – 21. Organized by Monson and Christy Hernandez, a research nurse in the plastic surgery division at TCH, who also served as camp coordinators, it is offered free of charge to patients between the ages of 10 and 16 at the Texas Children’s Cleft Lip and Palate Clinic. Thirty-seven campers attended in March, and organizers hope to take close to 50 in September.

Held at Camp for All in Burton, Texas, the camp offers canoeing, fishing, archery, ropes courses, basketball, arts and crafts, movies and much more. But it’s the social interaction that is so important, no matter what the campers are doing.

“The camp started on a Friday and by Saturday the kids were much more open, talking, laughing, singing and making great friends,” Monson said. “They talked about their experiences over breakfast, lunch and dinner. The change from the absolutely silent, unengaged kids who showed up Friday to the group that left on Sunday was remarkable. The parents even noted that they received a changed child back on Sunday.”

Hernandez noted the same changes. “The majority of the kids are not very interactive when I see them in clinic. A lot of it is because of their speech, and they are very self-conscious. They are timid and shy, just not very outgoing. Because of their appearance, they get made fun of or are bullied. My experience in clinic is they don’t smile much. Literally as soon as they started with the activities, they started talking to each other and came out of their shells. It was great to see them have fun, and not being self-conscious. That’s exactly what we wanted.”

One child in 700 in the United States is born with a cleft lip or palate. It is a congenital condition that occurs when a baby’s upper lip and/or palate does not fuse during pregnancy. A baby can have an isolated cleft lip or an isolated cleft palate but patients usually have a combination of the two. Primary health issues include feeding difficulties, proper speech development, proper oral hygiene and dental problems, along with psychosocial issues.

Opportunities are available to help support the camp. Find out more online.

This story originally appeared in the July issue of BCM Family.

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