Editor’s note: This story first ran in the June 18 edition of the Juneau Empire.
BY MELISSA GRIFFITHS
Pediatric specialist Dr. Marna Schwartz’s passion for helping kids is really taking her places. Really. She’s joined SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium as a traveling physician to provide care in the region’s smaller communities.
Pediatrics was a natural fit for Schwartz, even if it took her a while to get there. She said she always wanted to be a doctor as a kid, but in college she didn’t fit in with the pre-med crowd. Not long after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, Schwartz wound up in Alaska — another case of a never-ending “vacation.” She didn’t hop on that ferry heading to Washington, choosing to make Juneau home instead of returning to the Lower 48.
She worked with the Juneau School District for a number of years before moving to Anchorage, which helped her to realize she could have a great impact as a doctor working with children.
She obtained a post-baccalaureate pre-medical certificate from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, then went to Harvard Medical School and completed her pediatric residency at the University of Washington Medical Center in 2003. In 2007 she moved back to Juneau, working at the SEARHC Ethel Lund Medical Center. Dr. Schwartz rejoins SEARHC after two years out of clinical practice, this time to travel, providing more frequent and consistent pediatric care in the smaller communities served by SEARHC.
“I’m happy to go back. I love being a clinician,” she said. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be a pediatrician, to have that role in people’s lives.”
Though she’s available to see all patients, 0-18, Schwartz has some specialized training in working with children experiencing autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
“I especially enjoy working with kids who are a little bit more challenging,” she said. “To pull all these pieces together, to figure out how to understand that child and figure out if there’s a problem, what’s causing it and how to approach treating it.”
Her interest in working with children experiencing autism or intellectual disabilities may stem from her father’s work as a child psychiatrist — “it may be something innate, that we both share the same interest.”
Her work in FASD was motivated by her experiences in Alaska.
She’s lived in Juneau and Anchorage and has traveled all across the state, and said she “always had awareness of the impact alcohol had on all communities in Alaska. … It’s something I needed to be able to do when seeing kids here.”
What she’s most looking forward to as a traveling physician is meeting patients in their home communities and experiencing how they live.
When visiting a rural community in the past, she had the opportunity to see a child she treated in Juneau in another setting, with the child’s extended family network.
“I felt fortunate to see this child — a child with a lot of challenges — interacting with other caregivers I had known were part of the kid’s network,” Schwartz said. “I just learned a lot from that.”
Working with kids does a lot for Schwartz, who remembers vividly a patient she saw on a day when she was running late.
She began examining the teen and asking questions about health before she had access to the paper chart. The teen went on about how great life was and how healthy he was, though he had experienced some serious life-changing events, a major surgery and, it turns out, he had a prosthetic limb.
“That’s resilience,” Schwartz smiled. “I wish we could all think of ourselves this way.”
One of the hard things about pediatrics is seeing that horrible things can happen to kids.
“Part of our job as parents, as a community, is to protect our children,” she said. “It’s also our job to make it so our kids have resiliency.”
Dr. Schwartz is the only provider whose sole role is traveling, but SEARHC has providers traveling to many of the smaller communities it serves in many different fields.
SEARHC sends providers to Angoon, Craig, Haines, Hoonah, Hydaburg, Kake, Kasaan, Klawock, Klukwan, Pelican, Petersburg, Skagway, Thorne Bay, Wrangell and Yakutat.
The providers offer primary care, optometry, ENT, dental, radiology and nutrition.
Specialists from the Alaska Native Medical Center also regularly travel to these communities, as well as to Juneau and Sitka.
Schwartz will visit Haines and Klawock every other month, and Hoonah, Angoon and Kake four times annually. She will be in Angoon July 8-10, Haines July 13-17 and will see patients in Hoonah and Klawock in August. Contact your local clinic for more.