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4 Pittsburgh pediatricians making our city a healthier place

Katy Rank Lev
May18/ 2015

Pediatricians serve as an important bridge for parents, helping us navigate the murky waters between our children’s health and sickness, routines and crises. And though every Pittsburgh pediatrician deserves recognition, some stand out from the crowd. For these docs, it’s not just about clinical care provided in an office space or hospital. It’s about thinking big. Big enough, in fact, to inspire healthier families and even healthier communities as a whole. Drawing on the perspectives of local parents and health care providers, Kidsburgh recognizes four Pittsburgh pediatricians who are going beyond the call of duty to make our city a healthier place.

Dr. Diego Chaves-Gnecco, Founder of Salud Para Niños (“Health for the Children”) Bilingual Clinic

The second Thursday of every month, Dr. Diego Chaves-Gnecco (pictured above) comes to Pittsburgh’s Latino Family Center to drink coffee and chat with Spanish-speaking families. He sits for an hour and answers questions about everything from Ebola to the Pittsburgh Promise. “If you don’t speak English, it’s hard to even get past the door of social services agencies,” says the Center’s director Rosamaria Ponciano, who believes that Chaves-Gnecco’s bilingual support is crucial for the 30,000 Latinos in the Pittsburgh region.

When Chaves-Gnecco first moved to Pittsburgh from Colombia in 2002, he discovered that the city’s Latino community was a seemingly invisible population. Despite the presence of nearly 10,000 Latino children at the time, the area had no bilingual services in place and, thus, these families had significant barriers to health care access. To address this need, Chaves-Gnecco founded a bilingual clinic through Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC called Salud Para Niños.

Salud Para Niños provides a free clinic the second Saturday of every month where children receive preventative visits and sick-child examinations in either Spanish or Portuguese. But the mission of the clinic is even broader. “We know at the national level that if you’re Latino, you’re less likely to carry health insurance. Some of our families qualify for health insurance, but they don’t even know,” says Chaves-Gnecco, who also provides assistance in registering these families for insurance.

Since the start of the program, Salud Para Niños has served more than 1000 children. They are currently providing more than 1650 visits a year for children both with and without health insurance and have helped more than 100 children in obtaining health insurance.

Dr. Lynne Williams, Photo by Brian Cohen
Dr. Lynne Williams, Photo by Brian Cohen

Dr. Lynne Williams, Co-Founder of Jeremiah’s Place Crisis Nursery

Dr. Lynne Williams understands the importance of flexibility and support when it comes to raising young children. When she spoke to Kidsburgh via telephone, she had just finished sorting out her own kids’ plan B for a sick day. “In my income bracket, if I have to miss a day of work, my boss might frown at me,” she says. “But for many people, if they miss a day of work because school is closed or a kid is sick, they could lose their job.”

Williams is committed to helping parents who–when faced with similar child care emergencies–have little or no network of support to fall back on. “There are lots of small gaps in safe care for children,” she says. “For people without a buffer, the slightest issue just pushes them into the abyss.” Under this sort of pressure, children can be traumatized or even abused.

To help these parents, Williams co-founded Jeremiah’s Place (JP), a crisis nursery in East Liberty. Open 24/7, families can bring their kids to JP for free child care for a few hours up to a few days. In addition, there are always social workers on call to grow the support systems these families need. Opened just one year ago, Jeremiah’s Place has already cared for 190 children from 95 different families.

Besides raising three adopted boys and helping out at Jeremiah’s Place, Williams practices medicine in the underserved Hilltop community and recruits primary care providers to care for vulnerable patient populations in the region. As the child of missionaries, Williams has even gone abroad to help impoverished communities. But, her heart is always with Pittsburgh families. “We have need right here in Pittsburgh. This is my mission field,” she says.

Dr. Todd Wolynn, Photo by Brian Cohen
Dr. Todd Wolynn, Photo by Brian Cohen

Dr. Todd Wolynn, Kids Plus Pediatrics

When Squirrel Hill parent Stephanie Livshin’s oldest son cut his forehead and needed stitches, the staff at the emergency department asked her when he’d last had a tetanus shot. Distraught, Livshin couldn’t remember, but she could pull up her Kids Plus Pediatrics patient file on her smart phone and access her children’s vaccination records. Livshin appreciates both the practice’s online presence and family-friendly hours.

Meeting families where they are is important to Dr. Todd Wolynn, president of Kids Plus Pediatrics and executive director of the adjacent Breastfeeding Center of Pittsburgh. He spends a lot of time thinking about what families need and then tweaking his practice to meet these needs.

For example, Wolynn started New Mom’s Coffee Series where groups of mothers meet free of charge in the Kids Plus space for coffee and community-building, a practice Wolynn feels is the most important work he does. “New mothers, regardless of their work prior to parenthood, are all abruptly placed in this new situation that can be really isolating. I’ve seen the power of this cohort of women going through the exact same experience, all relying upon one another.”

Though Wolynn doesn’t see any income generated from the New Moms Coffee Series, he sees mothers–unsolicited–set up meal trains for each other, reserve the comfortable chairs for the moms with the newest babies and trade outgrown cloth diapers with one another. “We feel very firmly that hosting these groups is just the right thing to do,” he says proudly.

Dr. Liz Miller, Photo by Brian Cohen
Dr. Liz Miller, Photo by Brian Cohen

Dr. Liz Miller, Head of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC

Adolescents are, for the most part, pretty darn physically healthy, says Dr. Liz Miller, who heads adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Instead, most of the conditions that result in poor health for this age group are behavioral. “Addressing behavioral concerns and figuring out strategies for empowering young people are critical preventions to put this population on a healthier trajectory into adulthood,” says Miller, who has devoted significant chunks of her professional life to helping teens find this path.

But she also recognizes that she can’t do it alone. “For teens, an adult messenger needs to be someone well-respected and trusted. The messenger really, really matters to them,” says Miller, who looks beyond her own office walls for help from community role models that matter to teens.

Miller engages these trusted adults in creative interventions like her new Coaching Boys into Men program. Rolling out in 37 local middle schools over the next year, Coaching Boys into Men invites male coaches to serve as mentors for their young players. “We’ll be evaluating its effectiveness for reducing bullying, sexual harassment and homophobic teasing,” says Miller, who first tested the program successfully in California high schools.

An important component of the program is its challenge of masculinity norms that tie strength to sexual violence. “Being a strong man does not mean that you beat up your girlfriend,” says Miller, who also incorporates the voices of community partners like the Center for Victims and Pittsburgh Action Against Rape into the program.

Have a pediatrician that you would like to recognize? Please comment below.

Featured photo: Dr. Diego Chaves-Gnecco, photo by Brian Cohen

Katy Rank Lev

Katy Rank Lev is a professional word wrangler. She writes about women’s health, family, and education when she’s not chasing her 3 sons through Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood.