Nadine Burke Harris is a San Francisco pediatrician who refuses to believe that poverty and poor health inevitably go hand in hand. She's the CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness. Working with a pediatric clinic across the hall, the center serves mostly low-income families living in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.
“I think what we hear a lot about in the media is that Bayview has one of the highest rates of violence, of homicide, and certainly that’s true,” said Dr. Burke Harris. “But Bayview is a community of families.”
In 2007, Dr. Burke Harris co-founded the clinic in a location nearby, motivated, she says, by a Kaiser study examining what happens to adults who had repeated exposed to trauma as children. She explains that the study took 10 adverse experiences into account:
Physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; a parent who had mental illness or was substance-dependent or incarcerated; exposure to domestic violence; or parental separation or divorce.
Dr. Burke Harris says these traumas, or what she calls “toxic stress” can take 20 years off people’s lives. The good news, she says, is that identifying that toxic stress early in life can help prevent many of the negative impacts on health and behavior.
“Kids don't need to end up in school failure,” Dr. Burke Harris said. “They don't need to end up in juvenile hall. They don't need to end up with worse asthma and diabetes and ultimately leading to heart disease for something that we can identify and treat when they're two- and three- and four-years-old.”
Now, parents and their children are all carefully screened at the center, and referred to the appropriate services. These can range from crisis intervention to biofeedback and mindfulness training, things she says “some people would think of as crunchy granola, where there’s actually good science and good data that say it helps heal the immune system.”
Dr. Burke Harris is on the front lines of a scientific theory that measures Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), and sees them not just as a cause of physical illnesses like heart disease, stroke or cancer. They can also lead to impaired brain development and interfere with a young student’s ability to learn.
“Behavior is the canary in the coal mine. For a child to sit still in a classroom, pay attention and learn — that is their primary job,” said Dr. Burke Harris. “When they’re not able to do that, it’s a recognition that there’s something that’s not going right."
At a time where more and more young people are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder — Dr. Burke Harris believes inaccurately — that recognition is important. In her experience, the undesired behavior is much more likely to be caused by repeated exposure to trauma.
Understanding that has made a huge difference to Lotti Titus, whose grandchildren are patients of Dr. Burke Harris.
“Their mother was incarcerated and their father was on death row,” said Titus. “They were angry, and they felt sad, and all these emotions where they needed some professionalism to step in.”
Titus says her family got exactly the care they needed. She says the community appreciates so many things about Dr. Burke Harris, not the least of which is her warmth, love and respect.
“Some doctors aren't approachable because they're doctors,” said Titus. “She's just really a down-to-earth person.”
Dr. Burke Harris was born in Jamaica and came to the U.S. at age 4. She and her four brothers grew up in Palo Alto. Her mom was a nurse, and her dad was a biochemist.
“Typical parents see their kids throwing paper airplanes at each other and say ‘Stop that, you’ll put an eye out,'” said Dr. Burke Harris. “My dad would be like, ‘Let’s measure the wind resistance of the airplane and calculate gravity.' He was that guy.”
All that early exposure to science led her to study medicine at U.C. Davis. After adding a Masters degree in public health from Harvard, she gravitated toward pediatrics in the southeast section of San Francisco, where health disparities are everywhere.
A few years ago her focus on the correlation between stress and disease caught the attention of the Tipping Point Community, a nonprofit that funds anti-poverty programs in the Bay Area, including the Center for Youth Wellness. CEO Daniel Lurie thinks Dr. Burke Harris is a “rock star.” He was struck, he says, by her intelligence, charisma and an unwillingness to settle for the status quo.
“When you put all of those things together, it's an incredible combination that you just do not see very often,” said Lurie.
It would seem that the sky is the limit for Dr. Burke Harris. At age 38, she could write her own ticket. So why is she here, in a relatively small clinic in one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods?
“The families here in Bayview need people who are on the top of their game,” Dr. Burke Harris said. “Because they oftentimes have the least resources, I believe that they need the highest quality services. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Dr. Burke Harris' work has been noticed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Earlier this year, she was also appointed by Hillary Clinton to advise Too Small to Fail, a national initiative helping kids five and younger thrive in the 21st century.