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Doctor creates new way to treat childhood stress

By HealthDay News

You hear about it all the time: children are unruly and out of order and many times they get referred to a doctor for medication.

But as Dr. Nadine Burke Harris treated child after child, something told her she wasn’t getting the full picture.

Most of her young patients at the Bayview Child Health Center were from the surrounding, predominantly African American neighborhood in southeastern San Francisco. Their home lives were largely plagued by poverty, domestic abuse and chaos, and later in life, many of them developed chronic illnesses. But were the two related?

“I had a lot of patients who were being referred for ADHD,” explains Burke Harris. “But when I examined these patients, it seemed like something else was going on. What I realized was that this was the effect of trauma and adversity on the health and development of our kids.”

“I wasn’t taught this in medical school and thought, ‘Someone needs to be doing something about this.’ So the Center for Youth Wellness was born,” explains Dr. Burke.

Burke Harris’ research confirmed that childhood exposure to trauma was strongly and scientifically linked to all kinds of ailments and risky behaviors: heart disease, hepatitis, autoimmune disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression and suicide.

“The reason that I got very little sleep for the first couple weeks after I read the study was because it was just the key to understanding what was happening biologically, and why I was seeing a lot of the things I was seeing in clinics,” recalled Burke Harris. “I think when you understand what is happening, knowledge gives us the power to intervene. I was like, ‘This is something I can take and sound the alarm on it and use it to find solutions that are going to work.’”

In 2011, Burke Harris left to become founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview, a clinic that also researches the effects of stressful situations on children’s health. Her work has earned her statewide and national recognition, which includes an appointment as an expert adviser on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s project to improve young children’s lives, the “Too Small to Fail” initiative.


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