By Michael Pitt, MD
Advocacy, with a capital “A,” is a word that often intimidates pediatricians. Sure, at the very heart of being a good doctor for children is embracing the role of advocating for your patient who is often literally unable to speak for him or herself.
For example, having seen the devastating results of vaccine-preventable disease, we act on the patient’s behalf by advocating that all of our patients gain protection for these diseases. We often help parents navigate the complex world of specialists and gain access to therapies needed. On occasion, we may even put pen to paper in an old fashion letter asking a school to increase services or an electric company to keep the power on in the home of a child who is on a ventilator. We may often think of these as examples of “lowercase A” advocacy projects.
Embracing the “capital A Advocacy” – using our role as pediatricians to better the lives of all children, not just our patients – seems too much of a task to take on. We imagine this must involve writing legislation, policy making, speaking before judicial committees or even getting another degree to be useful. Yet, it is my hope that we as pediatricians can aim to be on the lookout for simple, yet effective, “capital A Advocacy” projects that may take no more time than it takes you to finish reading this blog post. Let me share an example from a recent vacation to the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
My wife and I both grew up in Florida, and from a very young age we were gleefully brand-washed, so to speak, into the cult of Mickey Mouse. This is not something we are ashamed of. In fact, my heart rate went up a few beats per minute even as I was typing the word M-I-C-K-E-Y (okay, for that I might deserve a little embarrassment). Needless to say, from the moment they were cutting our daughter Parker’s umbilical cord, we were already planning the optimal time for her first Disney experience. We were able to wait until she was 10-months-old.
Our favorite park is EPCOT, which any true Disney nerd knows stands for the “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” One of the activities they have there is walking through the house of the future. Here, you see fully automated homes with green technology that makes you half expect a flying car in the garage.
During this walk through we came to the baby’s room and I noticed something that made me cringe. The crib was nearly overflowing with stuffed animals, bumpers, toys and a huge comforter. Now this crib set up may not seem cringe-worthy to most. After all, it’s not like it was lined with mousetraps and rat poison. But as a pediatrician who’s aware of safe-sleeping recommendations – including that infants sleep on their backs with no bumpers, pillows or stuffed animals in the crib as this can lead to smothering and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and having seen several infants die because of accidental smothering and SIDS – I did feel a cringe was merited. More importantly, I used this cringe as a catalyst to seek out a “capital A Advocacy” opportunity.
Before we left the home I snapped a picture of the crib and a picture of the exhibit’s sponsor. After a brief search online, I had the e-mail address of the PR rep and president of the sponsor, and I sent the following email, being sure to avoid being confrontational while still making the advocacy point clear.
Subject: A Pediatrician’s Observation in Vision Home at EPCOT
My family and I just returned from EPCOT, and we toured the Vision Home sponsored by your company at Innoventions. As a new father and someone currently in the market for a home, we loved the ideas and new technology presented in the tour.
However, as a pediatrician and advocate for child safety, one decor choice concerned me. In the infant’s room, his crib is lined with bumpers, filled with stuffed animals, an extra cushion and a padded comforter. As you may or may not know, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that in order to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and crib suffocations, crib bumpers and padding should never be used. In fact, even the stuffed animals and comforter in the crib are against the expert recommendations based on the increased risk for suffocation.
As a pediatrician who has seen many infants end up with severe brain damage or killed from preventable crib deaths, and as a father of a 10-month-old, I cringe whenever I see cribs decorated dangerously in media/advertisements as it reinforces a potentially deadly message to new parents. This is especially true during a Vision Home where your guests are looking at the “ideal new home.”
I’ve pasted a picture of the crib below as well as links to the AAP recommendations and a CNN article about crib deaths. The CNN article references a study that found 27 infant deaths in the U.S. caused by crib bumpers. It is my hope that as an advocate for the Vision Home, you would act in the best interest of the thousands of families with infants who tour it and remove the bumpers from the crib.
I am happy to discuss this over the phone, if you would like, and would love to be kept in the loop of any decisions.
Michael Pitt, MD
Director of Global Health Education
Hospital Based Medicine
Department of Pediatrics
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago Northwestern University Feinberg’s School of Medicine
Three days later I received the following response:
Subject: RE: A Pediatrician’s Observation in Vision Home at Epcot
Thanks for taking the time to write to us with your astute observation about the VISION House in Innoventions. While we’re considered experts in sustainability, we clearly have some learning to do in other areas. We appreciate you pointing out ways that we can improve the exhibit,and we’ll work with Disney to make these changes post haste.
Chief Executive Officer
GREEN BUILDER MEDIA
This was followed a few days later with another email:
I wanted to follow up and let you know that we have removed all décor from the baby crib in the VISION House in Innoventions (see attached photo).
Thanks again for the recommendation.
I share this mini success story with you for several reasons. The first is that we should all be reminded that our responsibilities as pediatricians need not stop when we leave the office for the day. We share a responsibility to better the health of children even when they aren’t our patients, or when we’re on vacation. The second is that this advocacy experience took less time than completing a level on angry birds. Finally, I wish to challenge us all to be on the lookout for “capital A Advocacy” opportunities where a small amount of effort can lead to big results for the health of children.
Dr. Michael Pitt is a general pediatrician in Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago’s Division of Hospital-Based Medicine and the director of Global Health Education for the residency program.