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Dr. Perri Klass





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1958


Medical School

Harvard Medical School


Geography

LOCATION
Massachusetts


Career Path

Pediatric medicine: Infectious disease
Dr. Perri Klass



Inspiration

I had thought about being a doctor when I was in high school, but in college I decided to become a biologist and study the evolutionary biology and ecology of parasitic organisms. I was interested in evolutionary theory and how organisms could evolve with other organisms as their environments...so I went to graduate school in zoology, and then found myself getting interested in the medical and veterinary aspects of parasitology, which were important in what I was studying. I also began to think that I might be better suited to clinical medicine than to pure biological research—in the end, I did subspecialize in pediatric infectious diseases, allowing me to reconnect (in a certain sense) with many parasites.



Biography

As a pediatrician, writer, wife, and mother—Perri Klass has demonstrated how medicine is integral to the health of families and communities, and how doctors themselves struggle to balance the conflicting needs of profession, self, and family. With her love of literature and her involvement with literacy, Klass is acutely aware of the importance of reading to personal and professional success. As medical director of Reach Out and Read, a national program which makes books and advice about reading to young children part of every well-child visit, she encourages other pediatricians to foster pre-reading skills in their young patients.

Klass grew up with a love of writing. "I come from a family in which most people write, and publish (though no one makes a living at it)." In high school, college, and graduate school, she wrote fiction, and continued to so do during medical school. Her decision to study medicine came gradually. She began graduate school in zoology (the study of animal life), studying parasites (organisms that live off other plants or animals). Through her encounters with biomedical researchers and doctors, her interests broadened. "I decided that I was interested in the human hosts as well as the parasites, so I applied to medical school." Soon after she learned of her acceptance by Harvard Medical School, she published a story in Mademoiselle magazine. "Although I was of course pleased to get into medical school, I have to say that the acceptance from Mademoiselle was easily ten times as exciting." While earning her M.D., Klass bore her first child, knit baby sweaters, contributed articles to Mademoiselle and The New York Times as well as to scientific and medical journals. She also wrote her first book, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure(1987), which chronicles her introduction to medicine and motherhood. In the following years she had another child and continued to publish books, essays, award-winning short stories, a novel, and numerous articles ranging from professional papers to popular journalism and travel pieces. Her 1988 article for The New York Times Magazine, "Are Women Better Doctors?" aroused considerable response when she reported that "Many women doctors believe that women do medicine differently, that there are advantages to the way they approach their patients... If this is in fact true, and not just a convenient prejudice on our part (and one I still blush to acknowledge in print), then the effect of women on the medical profession may be larger and more far-reaching than we have yet imagined." In her book Taking Care of Your Own(1992), Klass examined the relationships between medicine and parenthood, focusing on such issues as how doctors care for their own sick children. She concluded: "You will be the parent you are in part because you are a doctor, and you will be the doctor you are in part because of your children. Your medical career will shape their childhood years, and they, in turn, will shape you as a physician."



Question and Answer

What was your biggest obstacle?

In many ways, I think my path has been pretty smooth—I have had great support, even when I chose to make my life complicated. The scheduling and the timing has probably been the greatest obstacle, especially when my children were small and there were long days and nights away, and often the sense of never quite catching up."

How have you made a difference?

As a primary care pediatrician, I hope of course that I have made a difference in the lives of my patients and their families—many small differences, the occasional big difference. Through working with Reach Out and Read (ROR) over the past eight years or so, I feel I have been part of a truly significant change in pediatric practice. Reach Out and Read is a national program which makes books and advice about reading to young children part of every well-child visit. Through the program, doctors and nurse-practitioners are trained in how to help parents understand the importance of reading to young children—even to infants and toddlers before they can talk—and we give each child a book at every check-up from six months through five years—ten books in the home by kindergarten! There are now more fourteen hundred ROR sites around the country, in health centers, hospitals, public health clinics, and practices which serve children growing up in poverty. Through my work as medical director of the National Center, I have thus been part of the growing incorporation of books and literacy-related advice into well-child care. In addition, by helping ROR programs flourish around the country and working to find books and book money for those programs, we have helped get millions of books into the hands and the homes of children.

Who was/were your mentor(s)?

As a medical student, my clinical tutor was Dr. Pearl O'Rourke, a pediatric intensivist, who inspired me with her intelligence, her humor, and her passion for pediatrics. As a resident, I had excellent advisors and mentors—Dr. Orah Platt and Dr. Jane Newberger, both at Children's Hospital Boston. As a fellow, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Jerome O. Klein, a phenomenal teacher and mentor for me and for many others in the field of pediatric infectious diseases. And in my work with Reach Out and Read, my mentor has been the chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, who was one of the founders of the original program, Dr. Barry Zuckerman. He has both trusted me and encouraged me—and helped me understand the ways that pediatrics can go beyond traditional boundaries to include social policy and advocacy, and improve children's lives.

How has your career evolved over time? After my pediatric infectious diseases fellowship, I started working in primary care at a neighborhood health center, and over time, my involvement in Reach Out and Read has grown to fill at least half of my time. I continue to practice at Dorchester House, and in fact I run a small ROR program there—in addition to running the national center which supports and sustains approximately fourteen hundred programs around the country. Certainly, as ROR has grown, my career has shifted and opened to include new roles (national advocacy, running a non-profit organization...). In addition, I have been very lucky that I have been able to continue to work in the field of pediatric infectious diseases, doing some consult service attending and working in the International Clinic so that I can stay current with travel medicine and refugee assessment. My career as a writer developed along with my medical career—I started writing about medical school while I was in medical school, and continued to write through residency. I continue to write about medicine, and to write in the voice of a doctor, writing, for example, parental advice articles. I had written fiction all my life, and initially had no intention of letting medical settings and medical issues take over my fiction as well as my non-fiction and journalism, but over time I can see that my fiction has also become increasingly concerned with issues and stories that arise from medicine, and from my pediatrician's perspective on the world. Writers and doctors, I would argue, have many overlapping traits—a fascination with the many stories out there in the world, an eagerness to probe for detail and complexity, a willingness to reformulate and retell. I suspect that by now my writing and doctoring "selves" are profoundly intertwined—and certainly I hope to continue doing both jobs, with their particular challenges and satisfactions.



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