What inspired you to become a pediatrician, and what do you enjoy most about it?
When I went into medicine, I had no vision of becoming a pediatrician. I had never spent any time with kids. Growing up, I wasn’t a babysitter or a camp counselor; I wasn’t particularly enamored by babies. But what drew me to pediatrics was two things: 1) I like pediatricians a lot, AND 2) kids get better. Medicine is a very stressful field, but pediatrics is a very positive profession. We really enjoy our patients and their families. Kids are fun and smart and motivated to get better. And for the most part, they themselves are not responsible for the conditions and illnesses and challenges that they face. They need people looking out for them, and their parents need docs they can trust with tough decisions and choices. A pediatrician can offer a compassionate but objective and science-informed perspective. Being part of helping kids feel better and grow into the healthiest, most productive humans that they can be. What job could be better than that?
What was it like working with First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House to help her launch her Let’s Move! initiative to support healthier kids and families?
This was not an opportunity that I could have seen coming. I mean honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had come to Washington hoping to expand the kind of work that I do to reach broader populations through public health and health policy. I have always practiced and taught medicine recognizing the social and environmental influences on health. So, I already had a lens for those things that really impact health outside of the traditional clinical setting—in schools or child care, for example; and focusing on what kids eat and how or where they play. With Let’s Move!, Mrs. Obama opened up the most extraordinary platform to shine a light on just how important these issues are. Nutrition and physical activity are universal needs for the common good. Everyday I learned more, especially bringing together the variety of organizations and agencies that all had a part to play. Teachers, chefs, athletes all stepped up with solutions to help raise a healthier generation of kids. But we have to stay at it. This wasn’t a trendy initiative that solved all of the challenges. So, I guess it was amazing to start that work, somewhat overwhelming to learn the scope of the problems we face, and was really just a beginning since there will always be more that we can do.
What are common challenges your patients and parents face when trying to implement healthy lifestyle changes?
Our families’ lives are so complex. Parents have a lot of things they worry about. Many of the patients that I care for come from low-resourced communities or may be struggling with violence in their communities. Parents may work multiple jobs, primarily speak languages other than English, or their kids may have a chronic illness or condition like asthma or autism. They are juggling all kinds of stressors just trying to make ends meet, and universally parents are trying to do the best they can for their kids. So when they are just trying to ensure that there is food on the table, or that their kids can be safe in school and have the supports or resources they need, trying to ensure healthy choices sometimes feels like one step too much. We’re often focused on how to identify or access healthier choices. The critical piece is that they need the healthy choice to be the easy choice (to take a line from Let’s Move!).
What advice do you give to families to encourage and support healthy lifestyles?
Everyone can start somewhere. Choose something doable and celebrate the small wins. Know that those easier first steps will help build habits that carry you to the next step. But what is easy for one family is different than another. A good starting place is with water since we are lucky that for the most part in our society, water is universally available and good for all of us. Healthy snacks, vegetables, activity, and sleep are also critical. Identifying the right starting place for each unique family matters. And we know that healthy changes can be hard to sustain, so monitoring and then encouraging and recognizing progress leads to success.
How do you prioritize health and wellness in your own family?
You know, I’ve got teenagers. As they grow, priorities evolve. They learned really young what healthy choices were all about (I mean they had some good role models when they were preschoolers). So they did develop good habits and had the privilege of daily fresh foods and active lives. But now, they eat out with their friends and make their own choices—not always the healthiest, but independence is a priority and we support that. And honestly, I blame the pandemic for a lot of things. We had less easy access to fresh foods when we weren’t going to the market frequently. Quite frankly, we’ve fallen into some bad habits with what stocks our pantry. We also really struggled with mental health and wellness during strict social isolation. So, in my family, we learned just how much our wellness, including our mental health, hinges on our basic healthy habits: fresh fruits and veggies, water, sleep, exercise, and having friends. These days, sometimes I can model good lifestyle choices, or sometimes our girls are the best models now. But we look out for each other. And we check in regularly, mostly around the dinner table. We still try to eat together whenever we can, and it seems that our family favorites are pretty healthy. It’s a treat to make really good meals that we can share, and also take the time to catch up after our busy days. Those meals often happen later in the evenings than they used to, but it’s worth the wait if we can all make the effort to find a few minutes together to pause, eat, and really see each other. Connection is our priority now and that keeps us healthier.
Thank you so much to Dr. Wong for sharing her experience and advice with us. We’re excited to keep collaborating with her as a member of our Kitchen Cabinet. For more on Shale, you can find her on LinkedIn, learn about her work at the Eugene S. Farley Jr. Health Policy Center, and stay tuned for more right here on Nothing to Sugarcoat.