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Meet Jennifer Woo Baidal: a pediatric gastroenterologist finding ways to overcome childhood health inequities, specifically focused on addressing childhood obesity and social detriments of health - things like food insecurity housing needs. We sat down with Jennifer to discuss her career, dealing with COVID in New York, an early epicenter of the pandemic in US, and how she finds ways to decompress in the midst of it all.
Q. Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up, where you currently live and a bit about your job.
A. I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Monterey Park, just east of Los Angeles. For 17 of the last 20 years, I have lived on the East Coast. Currently, I live in New York City. I am trained as a pediatric gastroenterologist, but I spend most of my time doing research on ways to address child health inequities, specifically focused on addressing childhood obesity and social determinants of health - things like food insecurity and housing needs. In the clinical setting, I take care of pediatric patients who are working on healthy lifestyles.
Q. What made you decide to become a doctor? Was it something you always wanted to do even as a child?
A. After I graduated from UCLA, I lived in Washington, DC where I worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and volunteered as an EMT. I really loved the mix of discovery and patient care. I was interested in biology and medicine as a child, but being one of the first people in my family to attend college, I didn't really know what careers existed in science. That time after college was very formative - it gave me experience in different fields which helped me decide to pursue an academic medical career. I applied to medical school and was floored when I was accepted at Harvard, where I graduated with degrees in Medicine and Public Health.
Q. How has your role/position changed since the outbreak of Covid-19? Was it challenging at first to adapt to your new “normal” work routine?
A. It has been quite the roller coaster. New York was an early epicenter. There was no playbook and we didn't know what to expect. At first, as a research PI and clinical director, I quickly strategized on how to transition my team to remote work. A startling number of adults were sick, but the number of pediatric patients had gone down because in-person school and elective procedures at the hospital had stopped. I briefly helped take care of adult patients with COVID in one of our ICU's because the need was so great. My heart really goes out to all the patients and families who have dealt with this challenging disease. Early on, the hardest part was remembering that I need to also take care of myself, and to find ways to eat healthy and be active while living in an apartment in an urban setting. After a few months, the surge in New York resided, and we were able to move towards a hybrid work model. It is still a juggling act with a lot of uncertainty, and I am constantly trying to anticipate the right approach for my patients, team, and family for the upcoming days, weeks, and months.
Q. Being an essential worker must have its ups and downs especially during times of crisis. Tell us a bit about how you like to unwind after a long work day/week. How do you de-stress?
A. I find a lot of comfort in routines. Removing the cognitive strain of having to make decisions about mundane daily tasks helps me to focus on important priorities and feel refreshed. I start my day with the same cup of coffee and breakfast, do some core warm-ups that my trainer taught me, and walk my dogs Sandy and Kaya. At the end of the work day, I block out time to reflect on how the day went and what I can do better the next day. Every week, I map out some evening activities like walking, cycling, resistance work, or yoga. I try really hard to stick with it, but it is tough in this partially shutdown world! Cooking also relaxes me - it gives me something to focus on that is different from where my mind has been all day. Especially later in the day, I limit my social media and general media time to reduce anxiety. Usually I read before I go to bed.
Q. What’s one thing you are grateful for this year?
A. I am grateful for the health of my family and friends, and to have a husband who is supportive and two dogs that never leave a dull moment. I am really looking forward to being able to visit my family in California and Costa Rica, it will have been over a year by the time I get to see them. I feel so appreciative of my team and colleagues at work, together it feels like we are making a difference. I am hopeful that Americans can get through the social and health justice issues we are facing by working together.