Harvard Medicine

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Five Questions

For Judith Palfrey

Professor, Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
T. Berry Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics, Boston Children’s Hospital

Advocating for children’s health has long been an interest of yours. How did the spark for this ignite?

I think that roots come from your family, your parents, and what they believe in and teach you. My father was a physician in Baltimore, and my mother was a social worker for Helen Taussig, considered the founder of pediatric cardiology. Taussig was interested in rheumatic fever. Since the streptococcal disease spreads rapidly in overcrowded living quarters, Taussig and her colleagues were out on the streets working on a social approach to a health problem. This is the world I grew up in.

What helped you become an effective advocate, mentor, and clinician?

It helps if you love what you do, and I certainly do. I was told years ago by a wonderful mentor that I have an integrative mind. I believe he was right. I integrate all the moving parts of community medicine and advocacy projects. The teaching model I work with is built on the idea that one of the responsibilities of a mentor is to steer students around the walls that can separate them from their passion to serve and care. This approach involves teaching by example on the wards and in the clinic and developing young faculty to serve as mentors for the generations that follow.

What brought you into global health?

Like many, I’ve become increasingly aware that our world is getting closer and smaller, that we’re global citizens. After I stepped down as the division chief at Boston Children’s Hospital, I volunteered to start a global pediatrics program there. Eight years later, we have a program in place that offers pediatric residency training, fellowship training in global health, and partnership programs with providers in four host countries. A bright light is that, in every country, young people represent an enormous resource; they are excited and want to work to improve health and social conditions in their countries.

What global program are you working on now?

I’m working with Recupera Chile. This is the ultimate community health program. We are working to rebuild three seaside towns devastated by the 2010 earthquake in that nation. As recently as 2013, people in these towns were still living in shelters. We are working with them in every way: physically, socially, economically, and culturally. We are working with children in a school program to help them love the sea after they’ve been traumatized by it. We’ve found that all people need is a little support and encouragement to start businesses and rebuild their lives.

Complete this sentence: The one thing a pediatrician must do to positively affect a child’s health is …?

… to find the child’s support systems. You may have to search for them, but believe that they are there. You will see horrible things sometimes; but find the supports and then encourage and foster them. And share the work with someone. I could do none of the work I do without help from many people, most notably my husband, Sean. We are in some ways the same person on the same mission.

Photo: John Soares

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