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At Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, young doctors work to battle 'toxic stress' in kids

Residents hear from a panel on toxic stress among the community’s youth as part of their project. The panel, from left, included Donna Sicilian, executive director of student services for Pinellas County Schools, Rick Kriseman, mayor of St. Petersburg, psychologist Lacy Chavis and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, St. Petersburg City Council.
Residents hear from a panel on toxic stress among the community’s youth as part of their project. The panel, from left, included Donna Sicilian, executive director of student services for Pinellas County Schools, Rick Kriseman, mayor of St. Petersburg, psychologist Lacy Chavis and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, St. Petersburg City Council.
Published May 3, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Resident trainees at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital went into the community last week to teach children, parents and teachers about the dangers of toxic stress.

Toxic stress occurs when children are abused or neglected, or exposed to violence, serious turmoil or economic hardship. In young kids, the repeated activation of the nervous system can have a lasting effect on the developing brain. In older children, it can increase the risk for disease.

The residents did more than spread the word about the problem; they connected families with resources to help manage the stress and build resilience, or the ability to adapt.

"A lot of children who live in poor communities experience toxic stress," said Dr. Sarah Marsicek, a second-year resident who helped organize the effort. "But resilience can help them thrive."

The weeklong campaign was part of an American Academy of Pediatrics initiative for newly minted doctors. All Children's residents, some of whom are based at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, participated in the AAP's 2016 effort around poverty, but in a more limited way.

"Our goal was to make this year bigger and better," Marsicek said.

She and her colleagues wanted to deliver the message beyond the hospital walls.

"It's good for us to learn," said Dr. Zach Spoehr-Labutta, a first-year resident. "But if we don't bring it to the community, we're missing the point."

The 13-member advocacy committee invited Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a nationally known expert on childhood adversity, to address the entire hospital faculty at an April 21 kickoff event.

Then, last week, 10 residents went to Campbell Park Elementary to teach fourth-grade students how to express their emotions. The residents had the kids write letters about things that troubled them. They then penned responses — and made sure teachers were aware of serious issues.

The same week, residents set up a booth in the hospital to inform their fellow physicians about toxic stress. They also discussed community solutions with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Pinellas County schools director of student services Donna Sicilian.

Kriseman conceded he didn't know much about toxic stress before being invited to address the young doctors. But he ticked off a list of city initiatives aimed at helping children who experience violence and poverty.

"There are a number of things that we are doing, without knowing that we were addressing toxic stress, that hopefully are having an impact," he said.

The final event took place at the downtown St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market. The All Children's residents helped parents determine their child's risk for social and emotional problems, and shared information about community resources.

Dr. David Berman, who practices at All Children's and was nicknamed "faculty champion" by the residents, said the intensive training will help the young doctors in their practice.

"They will know to screen for adverse childhood experiences, and help these kids," he said.

Berman also hopes the campaign raises awareness of toxic stress in the community.

"People don't understand what this stress does to your body," he said. "If it is repetitive, you could be at a higher risk for developing depression, heart disease, cancer, behavioral problems."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.