Camp life became annual blessing

By Kristen Holland Shear

Summer romance and camp go together like ice cream and apple pie. It’s practically a given among tweens and teenage campers, but it’s more unusual among adult volunteers.

For Dr. Michael Ragain, a 1992 graduate of UT Southwestern, romance and camping go together. Camp Sweeney is a residential camp outside Gainesville that’s designed for children with type 1 diabetes. And it’s where he met his wife of 16 years, Melanie.

Dr. Michael Ragain and his wife, Melanie, are summertime fixtures at Camp Sweeney. Daughter Meg and son Matthew also take part in many activities with the campers.

“We met when she was a counselor and I was a medical student at the camp,” said Dr. Ragain, now chairman of family and community medicine at Texas Tech University Health Science Center in Lubbock. “She has type 1 diabetes, so she’d been a camper, and she was a counselor when I met her.”

Dr. Ragain said he hadn’t considered spending his summers volunteering at Camp Sweeney until a classmate at UT Southwestern got the summer research job in obstetrics and gynecology that he’d been pining for.

“Needless to say, I was feeling pretty dejected when I saw a flier about Camp Sweeney,” Dr. Ragain said. “It said something like, ‘Would you like to get out of the medical center and work at a summer camp?’ At that point, I was ready to get away.”

First of many

That summer of 1989 was the first of many that Dr. Ragain would spend at the camp. He volunteered there throughout medical school and became an attending physician a year or two after completing his residency at Texas Tech Health Science Center in 1995.

“Our whole family goes back every year,” Dr. Ragain said. “We have two kids, and they go with us. We took them out there when they were babies, and as they’ve gotten to be the age of the campers, they’ve started hanging out with them.

“That’s something all the docs do. It’s a real family activity.”

Camp Sweeney offers activities similar to most summer camps. Campers choose from more than 30 offerings, including arts and crafts, archery, swimming, hiking, a skate park and an indoor climbing wall.

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But daily life isn’t all fun and games. The campers generally are awakened at 6 a.m. for their first of four daily blood tests. They’re assigned seats in the dining hall so that they receive meals prepared to their individual dietary requirements. They also attend medical education classes where they learn the implications of their disease so that they can understand how to lead a healthy lifestyle.

“Every part of the day is a learning opportunity for the kids,” Dr. Ragain said.
Camp director Dr. Ernie Fernandez, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and a 1988 graduate of UT Southwestern, said volunteers are an important part of Camp Sweeney’s success.

“As an attending physician, Dr. Ragain supervises the medical students,” said Dr. Fernandez. “We have 250 kids there at a time with type 1 diabetes and all of their medical care is provided by the attending physicians through the physicians, residents and medical students.”

Dr. Ragain also “runs the teaching program for the residents and students,” Dr. Fernandez said. “He’s very dedicated to putting that program together.”

Lots of amenities

As serious as the camp’s mission is, it’s pretty posh, Dr. Ragain said. Campers sleep in cabins, and amenities include a miniature golf course and a camper-run radio station.

“A lot of the kids have low self-esteem, so one of our goals is to identify where they are and build them up,” Dr. Ragain said. “Growing up is hard enough without a chronic disease.”

His favorite part of the Camp Sweeney experience is the building of relationships that takes place as campers return year after year.

“There’s a special bond that the campers form with other campers and with the medical staff,” Dr. Ragain said. “One of the campers came to Lubbock for nursing school. He had a key to our house, and he’d come over all the time.”

Camp Sweeney’s 2009 dates are: April 17-19, June 7-26, June 28-July 17, July 19-Aug. 7, and Dec. 27- Jan. 1, 2010.