Public Servant of the Year

Joshua M. Abzug 400x500Joshua M. Abzug, MD

University of Maryland School of Medicine
Associate Professor, Departments of Orthopaedics and Pediatrics

Some of the children are shy. Some have never been away from their parents. And some travel from as far away as the Midwest to find support, friendship, and fun at Camp Open Arms, founded for children with limb differences by Joshua M. Abzug, MD, associate professor, Departments of Orthopaedics and Pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Abzug started Camp Open Arms six years ago to focus on the emotional well-being of children with limb differences such as brachial plexus birth palsy and congenital/traumatic deformities. The first year, six children took part in a day and a half of activities. This year, the camp hosted 32 children and their families in Monkton for a weeklong camp that included a family day.

“I recognized early on that there is an emotional component to having a limb difference. The goal behind the camp is to try and fulfill that emotional component,” Abzug said. “These children are often bullied or made fun of, are often introverts and shy because of the way their hand or arm may look, act, or work. I wanted to provide the opportunity for them to be around other children like themselves to do activities, be involved in a support group where they can see they’re not alone in this world, there are other children like them, and they can try things and not be made fun of or feel embarrassed.”

As camp director, Abzug holds a variety of roles: overseeing and interacting with the philanthropic donors whose support helps to make the day camp free; developing the activities to ensure the campers have fun safely, even during the COVID-19 pandemic; and coordinating the volunteers.

For his efforts, Abzug has been named the 2021 University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) Public Servant of the Year.

“Dr. Abzug has raised over $500,000 toward support of the camp and associated research and has attracted the attention of national talent and numerous media coverage,” said Roger J. Ward, EdD, JD, MSL, MPA, provost, executive vice president, and dean of the University of Maryland Graduate School. “In a remarkable demonstration of commitment to the children and parents the camp serves, Dr. Abzug employed his usual ingenuity to keep the camp doors open during the pandemic. Because of his efforts, participants had a safe, enjoyable, and memorable summer camp experience.”

Abzug said the highlight for him is watching the children interact with each other and seeing them open up.

“Often on the first day of camp, people who have been there before have already developed lifelong friendships with another child, so I enjoy watching them reunite,” he said. “And then watching other children that are very hesitant about the entire situation, they may hide their limb when they first arrive, and by the end of the week, they are running and playing and smiling and having fun.”

Maddie Bynion has been attending the camp for five years and says she plans to return next year.

“It’s a really welcoming community. It’s always cool to make connections with people who are similar to you,” she said.

The children, who can range in age from 3½ to 18, take part in the usual camp activities: arts and crafts, music, a ropes course, and sports and games. But Camp Open Arms, which is a partnership between UMB and the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), also focuses on team building and support.

“We’ve built in an education component, which is a support group for kids, and counseling: how to respond when they’re asked questions, how to feel personally about dealing with the fact that they’re different,” Abzug said.

This year’s camp had a Maryland theme: The Oriole Bird played wiffleball with the children; a fishing store and boat dealership helped them fish and crab; the Smith Island Baking Co. gave them the chance to build and decorate a cake (and eat it, too); U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen played football and did STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities with them; and first lady Yumi Hogan worked with them on art projects. The children were helped by volunteers, including donors and two volunteers who also have limb differences and took time off from work to participate.

“The camp is a special opportunity for children with limb differences to feel accepted and build confidence, friendship, and hope,” Ward said.

In addition to the camp, Abzug, who earned his medical degree in 2004 from Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, holds numerous roles at UMB and UMMS. He is director of pediatric orthopaedics at the University of Maryland Medical Center; director of the University of Maryland Brachial Plexus Practice; deputy surgeon-in-chief at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital; and president of UMB’s Faculty Senate.

Abzug, whose research focuses on the pediatric upper extremity including fractures, sports injuries, and limb differences, said he believes Camp Open Arms is the only physician-run free camp for children with limb differences in the country. One family drove from Minnesota this summer to participate.

“Time and time again, families will comment that it’s a life-changing week for their child,” Abzug said. “The families have trusted us, and it’s become a community of people and impacted and changed lives.”

Ben Mortenson, whose daughter Sophia has attended the camp for five years, agreed.

“Camp Open Arms is an opportunity for our daughter and many other kids like her to experience life to the fullest and be able to have the opportunity to have fun and be kids with no judgment,” he said. “You can see the smiles under the masks and the joy.”

Abzug said he was humbled and honored to receive the UMB award.

“Camp is a team effort. It may have been my idea and I may be the face of it, but it truly does take a team in the community to be able to pull it off and do it the right way,” he said. “It’s humbling in that I just wanted to give back.”

Abzug added there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Helping the children and their families is a never-ending situation; there are always going to be children born with limb differences, and unfortunately, children can be mean and stare and make fun of them,” he said. “It is important to teach and educate people that children who exist in this world with a limb difference can do almost everything that you and I can do.”

— Jen Badie