Recently the New York Times published an article What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew. As a pediatrician, I have spent a good part of my lifetime fighting for the health and welfare of our young people. They are the future. We owe our children a safe, caring, stable childhood whenever possible. Outside of a supportive family, a long-term family physician or pediatrician can be an important role model for impressionable youngsters.
For confidentiality reasons I have altered identifying details, but will give you some of the great things heard over the years and a few tragic ones as well.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… there is not enough food at home. Many years ago, I was seeing twins for a yearly checkup and giving them shots when one, older by 4 minutes, blurted out there was not enough foods to eat at night when she was hungriest. I contacted the school counselor to ensure both children were offered free breakfast and lunch at school. They were added to the program sending home a backpack full of food every weekend. At Thanksgiving, this family received one of the donated dinner baskets with turkey, mashed potatoes, and all the trimmings. The children grew better and crossed percentiles in the positive direction; their grades improved as an added bonus.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… I want to marry her someday. A six year old boy informed me he was going to “marry me” when he grew up. He was disappointed at 9 years of age when I married my husband. He turns 18 this year and brought his girlfriend to the last visit which seemed awkward initially until she confessed I took care of her as a little girl more than a decade ago. I definitely approved.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… my mother is drunk right now. When I smell alcohol on their breath, they should not drive themselves home. Often there is a companion with them who is a designated driver, but if high on methamphetamines or intoxicated, I call the authorities, trying to distract the parent until help arrives.
I wish My Doctor Knew… I want to be just like her when I grow up. I have this budding group of young future physicians. They come with me when I draw up shots to “help”; many of them look forward to our time together. The conversations while standing next to the immunization refrigerator are unbelievably candid. After turning 16, I encourage them to follow me for a week and determine if medicine is really something they are interested in pursuing.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… my daddy does not live at home anymore. This one comes out unexpectedly every so often. Parents have a hard time telling me because they are afraid I will be disappointed in their decisions. I remind my families it is not possible to know what any of us would do ourselves until faced with the exact same circumstances, experiences, and entanglements. We are all doing the best we can.
I wish My Doctor Knew… How much I hate her right now. This is my favorite kind of teenager. Their statement usually follows startling recommendations for enforcing a curfew, punishing for smoking pot in their bedroom, removing computer or cell phone access due to failing grades, or unexpectedly curtailing their activities. The angry teenager crosses their arms, glares at me, and tells their parent they are never coming back to this awful place. I smile and tell them eventually they are going to love me, but until then, they need to be patient and give it time. They shoot me a look that says, “Want to bet?” It is a challenge I readily accept.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… I am scared of being deported. A few weeks ago, a child said they were worried about who was going to be elected, because they were afraid of being sent back to El Salvador. I asked if he was born in the US and he replied he was but his parents were not and he was afraid they would be sent away. He is just seven years old. I honestly did not know what to say.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… I love when she has time to read me a story. Once in a while, I get a break in my schedule and children will ask to have a story read to them. I love reading to children. I never read it the same way twice. The shared time and resulting connection is absolutely priceless.
I Wish My Doctor Knew… my uncle got me pregnant. This has remained one of the most difficult situations I have ever experienced in my career. Physicians face unexpected situations often but witnessing the consequences of depravity can be utterly devastating. She looked much younger than her twelve years, yet delivered a healthy infant a few days shy of thirteen. When I asked her if she had been sexually active, she answered ‘no’. She was telling the truth because of course, she did not consent to what was done. After transferring her to an alternate location for necessary medical care, I vomited into a garbage can before calling CPS and the police.
I Can’t Wait to Tell My Doctor…I got straight A’s on my report card. When kids come in beaming while holding up a piece of paper, I know it is going to be good. It can be a college acceptance letter, certificate of achievement, or a sports award they earned for their hard work and dedication. I like to make a copy and place it in the “friendship section” of their chart for posterity sake. It is such a pleasure to watch a child revel in their own success.
While this job is difficult beyond imagination, what I love about being a pediatrician is seeing how resilient children are despite the obstacles they face. We do not give them enough credit sometimes; they are far stronger than we realize. It only takes one adult who was supportive and willing to make sure the needs of the child were met to change the trajectory of their entire lives. I have seen it, I have done it, and I will continue listen, encourage, support, and love these young human beings. Be that one adult when a child in need crosses your path.
Niran al-Agba is a primary care physician based in Washington State.
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