The chair of this year’s Greater Miami Go Red for Women Campaign wants to reach everyone.
Judy Schaechter thinks all pediatricians should be activists. She’s set an example by advocating for children’s health and safety for more than 20 years and she’s far from done. MiamiActivists.org spoke with her in her office and at Hialeah Senior High School.
Miami and Hialeah– At the end of our hour-long interview, Dr. Judy Schaechter offered, “Let me give you my business card,” and she handed it over. I tucked it away thinking it a perfunctory gesture to close a meeting.
But there’s nothing perfunctory about Schaechter, even, as I soon learned, when it comes to handing out business cards.
We spoke about Schaechter’s role as this year’s chair of the Greater Miami Go Red for Women campaign, sponsored by the American Heart Association. The campaign is gearing up for Women’s Health Month starting Friday, February 1stwith a day devoted to building awareness and raising money. Then, on February 8th, the group will host a brunch and health expo at the JW Marriott in downtown Miami. Former Florida Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros will deliver the keynote address, there will be a video telling the story of a local survivor of heart disease, and dozens of health care professionals will host booths offering information and activities about health care.
It seemed like an unlikely role for a pediatrician whose made an indelible mark advocating for the health and safety of children.
“Not at all,” said Schaechter, who explained that adult women make the vast majority of health decisions affecting children. Things like exercise, diet, and even bedtimes, are managed by moms and have an enormous impact children’s health and safety. Schaechter’s mission as campaign chair has been to expand ethnic and cultural diversity among the group’s leadership. She hopes to broaden the organization’s reach, particularly among women and families of color.
Schaechter didn’t always want to be a pediatrician. As a kid, she loved animals. At five, she announced she was going to become a veterinarian and strove through school to earn the grades required to get into that highly competitive field.
Schaechter’s intentions shifted to human medicine during her freshman year at Brown University in Rhode Island. Her participation in a psychology class project with cancer patients at a Providence children’s hospital touched her deeply.
“I found their courage fascinating and infectious,” said Schaechter, “I learned how much it helps to hold someone’s hand, to comfort them. That’s also part of medicine.”
But her career-defining moment came during an ear examination while she was a medical student at Stanford University in California. As can happen during an ear irrigation procedure, tiny inner ear crystals can become irritated, sometimes causing dizziness and nausea. In this particular case it led to the patient vomiting all over Schaechter.
“I didn’t even know I liked kids,” laughed Schaechter, “but I knew that if a 7-year-old could throw up all over me and I could still have had a great day, pediatrics was for me.”
Clearly, Schaechter’s not squeamish.
And, as a proud former Bostonian who invokes the spirt of the Minutemen of the American Revolution, she’s not afraid of a fight.
In fact, she thinks all pediatricians should be fighters.
“Advocacy is part of the job,” she tells all of her students and residents. “More than money, pediatricians make a difference.”
Over her career, Schaechter has championed child safety issues related to violence, injury, poisoning, suicide, car seats, water safety, vaccine availability and smoking.
Her biggest battle, to date, was waged to overturn a Florida law called the Firearm Owners Privacy Act, which was passed in June of 2011 and made it illegal for doctors to ask their patients about guns in the home.
Schaechter objected vehemently on the basis of child safety and became a plaintiff in the case of Wollschlaeger versus the Governor of the State of Florida. Together with a band of modern-day Minuteman, Schaechter fought for six years arguing in court that the law violated doctors’ first amendment rights and forced them to stay away from a topic of vital importance to patient health.
In the end, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and struck down most of the law’s provisions. The case, which was dubbed by the press as the “Docs versus Glocks” battle landed Schaechter on the NRA’s blacklist.
On a recent Thursday morning, Schaechter was in room 323 at Hialeah Senior High School with a group of 20 teenage girls. She was the guest speaker at a gathering organized by Women of Tomorrow, which arranges for professional women to mentor at-risk girls. The group was founded in 1997 by TV journalist Jennifer Valoppi and then NBC 6 president and general manager Don Browne.
Schaechter’s medical practice has specialized in adolescents, so she was comfortable talking with teenage girls. Before the event began, she was already introducing herself, asking questions, smiling, laughing, gaining trust, encouraging the young women to open up.
After she was formally introduced, she dove right in. “How many of you want to be a doctor?” she asked, raising her arm. A couple of the girls raised their hands. “Awesome,” Schaechter said, “I’ll give you my card so you can call me and let me know how I can help.”
“What about the rest of you?” she pressed. A few more girls piped-up, but Schaechter didn’t let anyone off the hook. She took the time to go one-by-one around the room, making sure that everyone was included.
“Awesome,” she said again, once the last person had spoken up. “It’s great that many of you want to be in a helping profession,” she said. “You’ve got to pick something that’s hard, that you’re passionate about and that will stimulate you for a long time.”
She talked about her own humble upbringing. She and her sister Deedee were raised by a single parent, their father. The family bounced from home to home, even spending a year sleeping on the floor of a relative’s house. Like most girls in the room, Schaechter didn’t have anyone opening doors for her.
So how’d she do it? She told them: “Show up, be the first one there, be the last one to leave. Make them throw you out. Be so pleasant, be so punctual. And you’ll get where you want to be.”
Then the conversation turned to health issues: exercise, healthy eating, sex, anxiety, depression, suicide. Some of the girls really open up about issues they’re dealing with personally.
Schaechter’s message for each of them was clear. You’re normal. You’re not alone. And you can call her anytime.
“I’ll give you my business card.” There, she’s said again, and I had the urge to dig her card out of my briefcase. There’s a lot packed onto that 2” by 3 ½” piece of paper.
Schaechter has both an M.D. and an M.B.A. She’s a professor in and chair of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine department of pediatrics. She’s chief of service of the Holtz Children’s Hospital, which is part of the Jackson Health System. She holds the George E. Batchelor endowed chair in pediatrics. And she’s also Associate Director of the Mailman Center for Child Development.
But what strikes me as most impressive about Schaechter’s business card is the willingness with which she hands it out.
At end of her talk with the high school girls in Hialeah she said, “I want you all to take my card.”
“Oh, but I might not have enough for all of you,” she realized with a touch of panic.
“They can take a picture,” offered Darlyn Trujillo, the teacher who hosted the event in her classroom. She understood the value of having a direct line to someone like Schaechter and she too wanted all the kids to have the information.
“Oh good,” smiled Schaechter, relieved. “That’ll work.”