What better way to understand diabetes than to live with a person who has diabetes?

Or maybe live with 75 of them, but only for a week.

The “job” description for the pharmacy students who volunteer for this summer camp says they will have only two hours of free time per 24-hour-day, and the two hours will not necessarily be consecutive.

It also says, “MUST be able to tolerate children in large and frequent doses with continued patience and good humor.”

Each summer since 2004 a few WSU pharmacy students have been permitted to do one of their rotations at Camp Fun in the Sun in north Idaho, which draws children from throughout the region who share one thing: type 1 diabetes.

This is a place where some of the children find out they are not alone, and they depend on the volunteer medical staff to help them as they experience the different effects of exercise, food, insulin, heat and dehydration on their blood sugars.

“I firmly believe pharmacists will be on the first line of education and defense when it comes to diabetes, and this camp offers them a place to see diabetes in the real world,” says Debbie Belknap, a registered nurse and health director at camp.

The pharmacy students also bring to the table “a great knowledge base” that is “invaluable” when dealing with the campers, many of whom have other health issues and medications, Belknap says.

The students work as equals alongside nurses and a physician as they evaluate the campers before mealtime and help them figure how much insulin they will need to balance the carbohydrates they plan to consume.

Part of their job is to check the children before meals and before bed and give them insulin if they need it, and then to follow them around during the day, standing by with supplies. It is a typical summer camp, with lots of activities all day and into the evening.

To prepare for camp, the pharmacy students must go through three weeks of intensive diabetes education at the Community Health Education & Resource Center in Spokane, which includes playing the role of a person with type I diabetes by testing their blood sugar at least four times a day, counting carbs before every meal, and figuring how much insulin they would give themselves.

“You can learn about diabetes from your notes and your books and your teachers, but being here, it’s so different,” said Sherry Whitley, one of the pharmacy students who was at the camp. She was awed by the young children who were “so brave” about changing their insulin pump sites, and who showed her they can lead a normal life. “It’s going to help me as a pharmacist because I realize the importance of educating the patient.”

A second summer camp for children with diabetes—Camp Stix in northeastern Washington—has been another option for rotations by WSU pharmacy students since 2007. As with Camp Fun in the Sun, the students must submit an application and be screened before they are allowed to enroll in the rotation.
More diabetes work underway:

  • Clinical Trials Research Team: currently involved in several diabetes-related research projects
  • WSU Diabetes Initiative: A special interest group formed in 2005 to identify opportunities for research and funding collaborations, to maintain an inventory of WSU diabetes-related activities, and to develop a model for land-grant university contributions to improve diabetes care outcomes.
  • Endowed Professorship: recently established by donors and held by Professor R. Keith Campbell. Fundraising is continuing for this faculty position dedicated to diabetes. An endowment provides support through interest earned on principal, ensuring a “permanent” base of financial support.