Meet Soukaina Adolphe, MD, the newly appointed co-director of Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic. Her passion for serving vulnerable populations has been a driving force in her career as a pediatrician where she cares for the city’s underserved children and families. Earlier this year, the Grow Clinic’s Founder and Director Deb Frank, MD, stepped down to focus her work on research and appointed Adolphe and colleague, Megan Sandel, MD, as co-directors. “[Dr. Frank] asked me if I would be willing to take the baton with Dr. Sandel to continue her legacy and I felt very honored that she would even consider me. My background is similar to hers in the sense of the developmental training and the passion that we both share for our vulnerable families,” Adolphe explains.
In this Q&A, Adolphe discusses the importance of the work being done to address Failure to Thrive (FTT)—a condition linked to malnutrition that stunts a child’s growth and development—and how she plans to carry on Dr. Frank’s legacy.
Can you share a little bit about your background and what inspired you to become a pediatrician?
I was born in Haiti and came to America when I was a young adult. I did my undergraduate studies at Simmons College and medical school at University of Massachusetts Medical School. I have a brother who has special needs and he was my inspiration in pursuing a career in medicine with a focus in pediatrics. I have always had a passion to make a positive impact in children’s lives, especially those with special needs like my brother.
What led you to Boston Medical Center?
I worked for years with underserved patients in Boston’s urban communities and I knew I always wanted to continue working for the underserved. So when a position became available at Boston Medical Center, I accepted. BMC’s mission of exceptional care, without exception aligned with my values and the work I wanted to do. BMC also offered me a specialized opportunity for professional growth. There was a developmental mini-fellowship for pediatricians which allowed us to learn and provided us tools to be able to do more for our families. Secondly, the colleagues in my department are just amazing people. They are recognized as innovators, policy makers and advocates. I knew right away that BMC was a place where I could practice child-centered care because it aligned with everything I was hoping to do and achieve.
How did you get started in the Grow Clinic?
I’ve been in the pediatrics department for six years and throughout that time, Debbie [Frank] and I always had a good collegial relationship. I would take on some of her most challenging cases and we would work together to help the families. So when she was ready to retire, she asked me if I would be willing to take the baton with Dr. Sandel to continue her legacy and I felt very honored that she would even consider me. My background is similar to [Dr. Frank’s] in the sense of the developmental training and the passion that we both share for our vulnerable families.
Can you explain what the mission of the Grow Clinic is? And why tackling Failure to Thrive is so critical to our patients?
In the Grow Clinic we have a holistic approach to care for our patients who are not thriving. We investigate the medical diagnosis of course, but we also look for the social determinants of health that are causing part of the problem or the entire problem. Within our services, we offer support, we empower our families and help make changes that they need. A large part of how we support them is through nutrition, and when we support a patient, we are supporting the entire family in providing nutritional needs. Nutrition affects a child’s brain development over time if it’s prolonged, and if it’s not addressed, it can further affect the child’s ability to progress and widens health inequities. We also support our patients through other ways besides nutrition, like social work, mental health support, critical resources for our families and of course, we try to rally everyone in the community as much as we can.
You were recently appointed to co-director or the Grow Clinic. What does this new role look like for you and what are some goals you have moving forward?
Dr. Sandel and I work closely with a dedicated multidisciplinary team to continue Dr. Frank’s legacy. Moving forward we will continue to try and expand our resources, making sure our staff are well-equipped to care for these high-risk patients. We are using the Grow Clinic to continue to be an example of FTT care nationally. We also continue to cultivate community partnerships to support our families. Furthermore, we are continuously training our staff to make sure they are always ready with the latest tools and knowledge to provide the best support to our families. Our medical students are also very involved and always come up with great ideas on how to do things more efficiently in order to help our families. So we are always learning and evolving.
What does it mean to you to be sharing this role with Dr. Sandel in carrying on Dr. Frank’s legacy and also, what does it mean to you to be forging your own path?
Dr. Sandel and I have worked together previously as co-preceptors for the residents, so we know that we work well together and with open communication, we know that we can face any obstacle. We embody clinical collaborative leadership, share the administrative work together and provide support for our staff as well.
I am personally interested in child development and education, so I am adding that piece to the Grow Clinic to make sure our patients are getting the resources and support they need to bridge the gap that may have accrued during their period of malnourishment. That way they can continue to thrive both nutritionally and otherwise.
Coming out of the thick of COVID-19, do you feel the pandemic has changed the way we care for our pediatric patients? And if so, how do you see the Grow Clinic adapting to these changes moving forward?
We have been doing a lot of telehealth and we have created a robust system to ensure that we are reaching all of our patients. Our nutritionists, social workers and administrative staff have done excessive outreach and assessment to make sure families have their essential resources while in isolation. Someone from our staff is calling each family at least every one or two weeks. We have mobilized supporters that provide masks to our families and are making sure they are staying safe and practicing safe distancing. We have distributed gift cards, high chairs, diapers, wipes and groceries. We have done drive-by Food Pantry drop offs so that families have the essentials that they need. We have also provided some educational toys and books for families for appropriate development activities while children are being homeschooled during COVID-19.
We continue to plan for summer enrichment programs for school-aged children, however we know that might not happen this year so we are actively looking for other activities that the families could do with their children during the summer and trying to support them during that time. Ultimately, we are always thinking about what the next obstacle our families could be facing and how we can help them.
What does the future of the Grow Clinic look like?
We are still going to be nutritional-based of course, however, we want more mental health support and school support to be integrated into the clinical service we are providing. These uncertain times are creating a lot of anxiety in children themselves and some depression and mental illness in the parents as well, so we will continue to support them during difficult times and provide the resources they need to be healthy, both physically and mentally. Moving forward, we will continue to work on making our model more complete and holistic. And as many know, children spend most of their time in school, so we are working really hard with the schools to make sure the whole family has the essential tools they need. Stemming from this recent pandemic, we are continuing to integrate more technology—like telehealth and Zoom calls—in order to do better outreach to make sure every family is being reached and supported.
When you’re not working, what are some of the fun things you like to do?
I enjoy spending time with my family. I love documentaries about history of different cultures. I also love gardening and sewing. On rare occasions, I like to bake—though that proves a little difficult to do because of time constraints. I also really enjoy the baking challenge shows and I have to say, I have tried some of these challenges and have had some success!
I also think it’s very important to make time for self-care, to have a life outside of work and to have balance as much as possible. You have to be whole in order to give as much of yourself to your family and if you are not whole, you cannot give back to your community appropriately.