The Public Pediatrician

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Dr. Don Shifrin '66 speaks for children's health

From the Summer 2012 Caller

By Nadine Fiedler

In the cacophony of voices giving endless and often contradictory advice to parents, that of Don Shifrin ’66 stands out. For decades Don has been the steady, calm, informed voice of reason representing the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). He has earned a place in the national media as a premier advocate for children’s wellness, weighing in on a huge variety of topics—from obesity and nutrition, to children’s use of media, to safety and medical issues. His expertise draws from a deep well of experience: his 34 years as a beloved and award-winning pediatrician in private practice in Bellevue, Washington.
“Pediatrics is all about communication, about teaching families,” he says. His overriding mission: “Consider what kids need, which is often not what parents realize.”
For 13 years, Don has recorded a radio program that runs twice a day on CBS Newsradio in Chicago called “A Minute for Kids,” also available on HealthyChildren. org. He has testified in Congress as a spokesperson for the AAP. He has served on and led the AAP councils on media, communications, and childhood obesity. Don has appeared as an expert on national networks and in many periodicals including the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, Time, and Newsweek. His first encounter with the media was a bit of a disaster, though, and he learned a big lesson from it.
When Don realized in the mid 1970s that car accidents were the biggest killers of children, he gave the first lecture on auto restraint safety systems, and proselytized for years to change the laws in Washington State. People were angry about the possibility of being required to use any form of restraint: they felt safe holding their kids. During one of his testimonies, a reporter asked him how he felt about always coming back and not getting anything from the legislature. “There are only two reasons people won’t use safety restraints,” Don said. “One, they don’t see the need. Two, they’re stupid.” Predictably, the headline the next morning was “Pediatrician calls parents stupid.”
Lesson learned, Don sought out the medical reporter at the Seattle Times, resulting in an article and a TV program about the worth of restraints. “The light bulb went off for me with this media coverage. I thought, ‘I can reach more people in one minute on TV than in five years in an office.’ So we must make media our friends and collaborators. Let’s tell them what’s medically appropriate for kids,” he said.
Don was first taken with the idea of a life devoted to the good of children when he was a child himself in Portland, and adored his pediatrician, the legendary Dr. Benward. Don’s father was a Russian immigrant— a salesman—and his mother was of Austrian descent. They both planned for him to become a doctor. After earning his B.S. at the University of Washington, Don went to Georgetown University Medical School, and then did a residency and chief residency at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles during the golden age of pediatric mentors there.
Pediatrics is dauntingly complex, a dense specialty due to the tremendous variation of ages and stages from toddlers to teens—so the work held Don’s interest. He felt that the field was a tremendous opportunity for him: “Kids are a tabula rasa. Most kids don’t want to be sick; they want to get well. So they are compliant. If you do the right things and make the right diagnoses, things usually can go pretty well,” he says. “In most cases you are able to make a significant difference in the life of a child. That’s the great joy of pediatrics. You see youngsters from a young age through all their physical, mental, emotional, and social changes and can be a resource as well as a caregiver.”
Childhood obesity is one of the concerns Don deals with in his office as well as in the media. “You must have sensitive antennae as a pediatrician. If you don’t notice and ask about a health concern, you won’t be able to initiate a discussion,” he says. He measures body-mass index and looks at family factors, such as what and how much they eat and snack. When he talks to children and families about foods, he describes them as healthy or unhealthy: not “bad” or “good.” He talks to parents about small, measurable changes, because big changes are difficult for kids: a bagel cut in three pieces instead of two, chocolate milk once a day instead of twice. He speaks to children in a way they can understand: a can of soda pop equals a glass filled with 10 ½ teaspoons of sugar. “A pediatrician is a health translator,” he says. “We engage caregivers in this dance, and it is a dance, about how they can participate in their child’s health.”
“Kids walk through their parents to get to the world,” he says. “Can we give them the right opportunities?” He speaks to parents about how they affect their children using what he calls Dr. Don’s 4M Method:
1. Model the behavior you want your children to achieve. (Use your napkin, be polite, don’t smoke, be active.)
2. Mentor that behavior, teach that behavior. Kids have big eyes and big ears. (Did you notice that I held the door open? Did you see that I didn’t say a bad word back there?)
3. Monitor closely to see if the behavior is being done.
4. Mediate to change behaviors. Parenting is a slow, time-intensive process. It’s like a cruise ship: it takes a while for it to reconfigure its course. You have to mediate with your children in a slow, steady, consistent, calm way. Kids stop listening if you yell. Remaining calm and in control, and trying to achieve balance, is the key.
Don gives credit to Catlin Gabel for best preparing him for his life and career. “My best education—considering my college, medical school, and residency—was still my elementary and high school education at Catlin Gabel,” he says. “My teachers didn’t just teach: they took it on themselves to make me better and help me learn. Every time I give a talk I remember Schauff [former head Manvel Schauffler] by putting words into language everyone can understand.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics honored Don for his work in 2009 with its Holroyd-Sherry Award, in recognition of his national impact in talking about kids and media, and forming policy that has national implications. Don is proud of that award, as well as his charitable work. He received an award in 2000 from Seattle Family Services for his work as medical advisor on its Children Grieve project. His biggest satisfaction, however, lies in his daily work.
“Pediatrics is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. It’s one thing one moment from toddlers to teens, and another thing the next,” he says. “But with great challenges come great rewards. You can try to help everybody, but you don’t have a magic wand. What you can do is to make small changes that will build lifelong habits. Pediatrics is not just about helping the sick get well. It’s about working together with families every day to identify better ways to improve the health of their children.”
Nadine Fiedler is editor of the Caller and Catlin Gabel’s publications and public relations director.