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At Summer Camp, the Doctor Is In

July 20, 2016

Dr. Larry Kaiser, President and CEO of Temple University Health System, at work as summer camp doctor

A little girl at summer camp in Maine the other day got stepped on by a horse, but the camp doctor was in — in shorts and t-shirt — and checked her out. No breaks, just a bruise, and she will be fine.

The camp doctor just happens to be Larry Kaiser, dean of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and President and CEO of Temple University Health System, a $2.0 billion academic health center. But this week he’s on vacation in Poland, Maine, at Tripp Lake Camp, an all-girls camp founded in 1911.

“I don’t think there are too many medical school deans that do this,” he said yesterday, by phone.

His wife, Lindy Snider, went to this camp as a little girl. And her twin daughters went there until last year, when they aged out. (They are so jealous he got to go this year and they didn’t.) Dr. Kaiser is now in his sixth year as camp doctor. They keep inviting him back, and he enjoys it, so he goes.

He handles stomachaches, sore throats, and bug bites mainly.

“It’s a little out of my area but I’ve learned on the job,” he said. “I’m a cardio-thoracic surgeon and not a primary care doctor. I look at a lot of ears, not something I do routinely, but it’s something I do here.”

The campers, age 6 to 16, come from all over the country, and some of the counselors from Europe and beyond. Turns out the foreigners have a particularly hard time with Maine mosquitoes.

In fact, one of the counselors from England had such a bad reaction to bug bites that Dr. Kaiser took photos with his phone yesterday and texted them back to Dr. Rachel Anolik, a dermatologist at Temple, and asked her medical opinion. She suggested antibiotics and a topical ointment.

“I saw a kid yesterday with a sty that has been recalcitrant,” the doctor explained. The treatment plan was warm compresses.

“There’s a lot of reassuring that goes on,” he added. “’Look this is going to get better.’”

For the record, Dr. Kaiser is licensed to practice camp medicine in Maine. The state actually issues something known as a camp doctor’s license, which he gets for the time he’s there. “Only in Maine,” he chuckles with appreciation and amusement.

Dr. Kaiser is not sleeping on a bunk bed in a cabin without air conditioning.

He has a little house, with internet access, a view of the lake.

“It’s not exactly the lap of luxury,” he said. “ but it has a working fireplace, kitchen, living room, two bathrooms.”

He is there on vacation. His wife usually goes with him, but not this year. They have a home in Maine about an hour away, and their son is spending the summer at Camp Takajo, Tripp’s “brother” camp, about 30 minutes away.

In previous years he’s been camp doctor for two weeks. This year, just one.

“It’s fun, restful and relaxing,” he says. “Not exactly a huge workday.”

But he adds: “I never quite get away from it all because I am totally connected.”

His schedule is less rigorous than back on Broad Street.

“Their wake up here is 7:30, and breakfast is 8,” he said, “and then I staff sick call in clinic starting at 8:30.”

But like all physicians, he must be flexible. The camp director sent him an email the other day. “We are surprising the girls with a PJ breakfast tomorrow morning, so clinic would begin at 9:30…”

He is largely free during the day, though available in emergencies, and sees the children who need a doctor again after dinner.

He sits at the head table at mealtime with the camp director and staff.

As he was speaking on the phone, there was a knock at his door. A counselor was in search of a chessboard.

He began searching a cabinet.

“Let’s see,” he said to the young girl, “Scrabble, Backgammon, Risk…”

No chessboard. Well, he can’t solve all the problems.

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.