Annual Heart Camp Promotes Summer Fun and Confidence Among Children with Heart Conditions

June 8, 2017

For the 27th year, the Dr. Bill Neches Heart Camp for Kids, in association with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, will open its cabins to children and adolescents with heart disease. More than 120 children ages 8 to 17 will participate in a week of summer camp activities, while bonding with others living with heart conditions.

Heart Camp receives support from its major contributor, the Pittsburgh affiliate of the American Heart Association, and other local family and corporate charities.

For the first time, the camp will span an entire week, from June 11 to June 17. Held at Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer YMCA in Fombell, Pennsylvania, Heart Camp was established in 1991 by cardiologists from Children’s Hospital’s Heart Institute and is the first in the nation dedicated solely to children with heart disease. It’s named in honor of its founder, cardiologist William Neches, M.D., who retired in 2005 after 33 years at Children’s.

“We are assisting the children and young adults in healing the body, mind and spirit,” said Keith McIntire, director of Heart Camp and a Children’s heart patient. “The camp helps build confidence and self-esteem. Many of our former campers have gone into careers in health care, teaching and social services, and all of them will tell you they pursued these careers because of camp.”

Heart disease affects approximately 1 percent of all children born in the United States, yet very few who have heart disease ever get to know others with the same problems.

“I had never met anyone with a scar like mine before,” said 17-year-old Elexa White, who had open heart surgery as a 4-month-old. She will celebrate her eighth year at Heart Camp this summer. “The kids at camp are some of the friendliest, strongest and most inspiring people I’ve ever met. Knowing that we’ve gone through the same things makes our bond 10 times stronger.”

The campers spend their days mastering the climbing wall, zip-lining, making crafts, swimming and stargazing. “The nightly campfire is my favorite part,” said Shannon Witkouski, a second-year camper. “We play games, sing songs and strengthen the friendships we’ve developed while reflecting on the day.” Witkouski, who was born with holes in her heart, underwent two open heart surgeries in 2015.

Campers also spend time with their doctors and nurses in non-medical settings. A favorite activity of staff and campers alike is the Ask the Doctor/Ask the Nurse/Ask the Counselor sessions, in which campers ask insightful questions about their heart conditions.

“Heart Camp allows the doctors and nurses to see the kids as real kids—not just patients,” said Matthew Zinn, D.O., cardiologist, Children’s Heart Institute. “It provides an environment where kids experience something amazing along with the medical staff, which strengthens those bonds.”

“I know for a fact that there are people at camp who have helped me through the hardest times in my life,” said 25-year-old counselor Alissa Carter. Carter has had four open heart surgeries to repair atrial and ventricular septal defects, as well as four pacemaker surgeries. “Some things are hard to go through alone, and I feel blessed to have these people in my life. I always know there is someone who understands.”

The camp is a program of the Heart Institute at Children’s Hospital, which cares for infants, children and young adults with all types of heart disease, and for adults with congenital heart disease, including many who have undergone heart transplants.

For more information on Heart Camp, visit our webpage.