Alisa Minkin, MD, is a pediatrician and community health advocate who melds her medical background with her experience as a mother of a daughter with special needs
In the beginning
I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was three. When I was five, I colored all over my sister with indelible marker, so that she would look as though she had rubella — my parents did not appreciate that. I decided on pediatrics by age seven. I spent hours reading medical books and practicing on my younger siblings with the real stethoscope and otoscope my parents bought me.
I followed my dream through college at Johns Hopkins, medical school at NYU, and my pediatric residency at Brookdale Hospital, but at the end of my residency, I faced an enormous challenge: the birth of my third child, Rivka.
Rivka had medical issues from birth — she didn’t sleep, eat, or develop normally, and she began having seizures. I couldn’t continue working, and for a while I stayed home, spending countless hours taking her to specialists and researching her issues. Despite all my hard work, Rivka still does not have a diagnosis for her underlying condition (although she does have a diagnosis of autism). Today, I’ve come to a level of acceptance that it’s not my job to fix her — but it took me a long time to get to that point.
Getting back to work
Before Rivka was born I was so confident in my parenting skills. I was Dr. Mom and thought I knew it all. I took great pride that my older two children were so verbal and great sleepers. Then I had a kid who wouldn’t eat, sleep, or talk.
This changed the way I view both medicine and parenting. My roles as a pediatrician and a parent of a child with special needs are intertwined. When I was staying home with my daughter, I became her advocate. My walk-in closet was lined top to bottom with papers from all those CSE and IEP meetings.
Advocacy is a big piece of what I do as Rivka’s mother, and when I went back to work, I took that with me. I’m passionate about collaborating with parents to get their children the best care possible. Every single day, on my way to work, I daven to Hashem that He help me treat all my patients as if they were my own children.
Being an advocate
Although I stopped working as a pediatrician for a while, I still felt a strong need to help other parents of children with special needs in my community. I started a support group for these parents, with the help of another parent of a child with disabilities, and I organized an inclusive art program called Art Buddies.
I didn’t have much time to volunteer once I returned to work, but last year, Rivka, who is now 27, chose to move into a residential program. At that same time, I joined a brand-new organization, JOWMA ( Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association). This organization was founded by Eliana Fine, now a third-year medical student, who had been Rivka’s job coach. JOWMA was created to support frum women who are or are aspiring to become physicians.
JOWMA has a strong focus on preventative health care, starting with the vaccine hotline that we started during the measles outbreak last year. We had a phone number people could call to get free measles vaccines in their homes. As a parent of a child with autism, I’m very familiar with vaccine hesitancy, and I was skeptical that the reason some people were not vaccinating was lack of access. We did have some people who requested the vaccine. But many more people called but hung up without speaking to us.
Finally one caller explained that she’d thought that our hotline had prerecorded talks on it. Some callers had questions about vaccine safety, although others were clearly anti-vaccine and wanted to debate us. We spent a lot of time trying to answer their questions. We realized that people craved reliable health information geared to the frum world, so we switched to an information hotline and podcast.
I’m now the cochair of the Preventative Health committee, and do most of the interviews. We cover a wide range of preventative health topics, including mental health, which is another passion of mine, as well as dieting, infertility, and of course COVID-19.
We’re trying to get as much information as we can out there in a culturally sensitive way. If you’re trying to find information, why should you have to filter it through the values of the secular world?
I believe my responsibility is to advocate for patients as if they’re my own children and to be mekadesh shem Shamayim. I had a patient with an extremely rare abnormality. It turned out to be a really huge ordeal to get him the proper treatment; he needed a very specialized procedure. Afterward, the mother wanted to thank me, so she went to a gift store and said, “What can I get my chassidish doctor?” The woman told her not to get anything with faces on it, so she bought me a little mother-and-baby angel figurine.
I’m not actually chassidish, yet this woman saw a religious Jew and assumed I was. We’re all one family, and we can’t let anger tear us apart. I think about this a lot during this turbulent period.
If I could tell a special-needs parent one thing
YOU are the right parent for this child; you have it in you. You have to be your child’s advocate, and you can be. But it’s not a one-person job. Build your team.
What I’d tell a frum woman who wants to be a physician
It’s really hard, and it’s not for everybody. I myself am an example of someone who struggled with finding the balance between work and family. But if you’re passionate about it, you can make it work. Get as much help as possible.
Your family has to come first. I recognize that not everyone has the luxury to be able to work only part-time or volunteer as I did. The balance will be different for each woman.
What’s changed in medicine
Years ago, the doctor just told the patient what to do. Today, there is more of a collaborative approach between the physician and patient (or parent). Parents know their children best. My years at home as a special-needs parent taught me that lesson more than any residency could.
We also have electronic medical records and shorter visits, which I find so frustrating. If I have 15 minutes with a family, I don’t want to spend the whole time clicking on boxes!
Above and Beyond
I keep an updated list of specialists who take insurance and are excellent. I know how frustrating it is to spend time and money and not get good care.
I try to advocate outside of my work hours for these parents — you’d be surprised at how many doctors are willing to put their own time into helping a patient get care or coverage. I can’t walk away if I see a child who’s not getting what he or she needs; I’ll do all I can to get them help.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 720)
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