I was in the seventh grade. Short and scrawny with acne on my face and peach fuzz on my upper lip, I rarely think of that year as one filled with confidence. However, every afternoon, I was welcomed into class with a greeting that made me feel important. “Mr. Vohra,” a deep voice hoarse from years of smoking boomed, “have you discovered the cure for cancer?”

“Not yet, Mr. Hacker,” I would often reply with a smirk on my face.

“Well, you better get going.”

With those simple words, Mr. Hacker instilled a special confidence in me that I continue to carry today. During an otherwise complicated time in my adolescence, he believed that I was capable of accomplishing incredible achievements. Although I have not and likely will never find the cure for cancer, Mr. Hacker thought I was capable of being special. In his small way, he helped me become the person I am today.

———

I am a pediatrician at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. I love my job, and I feel honored to spend my career working to keep kids healthy. However, the task seems to be increasingly challenging these days, and many of my patients face complicated social and behavioral challenges that simply cannot be cured in the clinic or hospital. Many of these children grow up in environments where they face continuous stressful or traumatic events, including abuse, neglect and violence. These events, often referred to as adverse childhood experiences, lead to poor learning, academic achievement and health.

I search and struggle to find medical solutions to improve the lives of these children, but the reality is they simply do not exist. The challenges our children and their caregivers face are beyond the scope of disease identification and treatment. Individuals are struggling because of their socioeconomic status, education, health behaviors, and physical environments. These factors known as the social determinants of health are increasingly seen as the leading factors in an individual’s health status.

One year ago, SIU School of Medicine took a large leap in trying to address these social determinants of health in our 66-county service region in central and Southern Illinois. The school created the Office of Population Science and Policy, a research and policy organization working on improving health outcomes for our residents in central and Southern Illinois. The office is working on a variety of projects to address health challenges from both a community and clinic perspective. One of our priority areas is finding innovative ideas that will build brighter futures for our children.

We have been fortunate to find incredible partners in our work. Judges, hospital CEOs, business leaders and many more have partnered with us to address health challenges in their communities. However, a truly special partnership has emerged with the teachers from across the state.

Through a collaboration with the Illinois Education Association, I and members of our Office of Population Science and Policy have had the pleasure of meeting teachers from Decatur to Carterville and everywhere in between. I have learned quickly that the challenges that I face as a child health provider are nothing compared to our teachers. Limited resources, changing laws, and balancing competing priorities make it difficult for teachers to appropriately address the growing challenges our children face.

Together, the Office of Population Science and Policy and Illinois Education Association are exploring a series of projects, starting in Macon and Piatt counties, to create innovation incubators to provide teachers with better opportunities to keep their kids healthy and address adverse childhood experiences. In Macon and Piatt, SIU School of Medicine was fortunate to already join a group of innovators at the Macon/Piatt Regional Office of Education, Illinois Education Association and the Education Coalition of Macon County. We have already begun a project in five pilot schools that will study the innovative practices that can help our state’s children succeed.

Macon/Piatt is just one example of many across Illinois. I have witnessed countless teachers who are finding exciting ways to help their students succeed. They volunteer after-school, mentor struggling students, and even spend their own money to give these students hope and options. Just like Mr. Hacker, these teachers believe that their students with the right support and help can accomplish incredible achievements. We as a state are lucky to have them.

As a physician and a parent, I want to simply say thank you to our teachers. Thank you for your energy. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for your commitment. We at SIU School of Medicine are honored to work with you to help build brighter futures for our children.

Dr. Sameer Vohra is the SIU Medicine pediatrician and population health and science director. Over the past year, he has been working with teachers throughout central and Southern Illinois.

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