As part of an ongoing interview series with leaders who will join us at our forthcoming Phoenix Zones Initiative Summit, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Emily Peitzman, who is a physician and educator at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Children’s Hospital. Emily received her medical degree from The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and she completed a Pediatric Medicine residency at UCSF Children’s Hospital. She works in both inpatient and outpatient settings as a primary care/urgent care physician and as a hospitalist on the UCSF Children’s Hematology and Oncology Bone Marrow Transplant unit. Emily is passionate about healthcare delivery and outcomes for children with increased exposure to adverse childhood events, particularly children in the foster care system and those with chronic illness. In her time outside of work she is passionate about animal rights advocacy, especially the needs surrounding pitbulls. She is a volunteer at the San Francisco SPCA in multiple programs including fostering and the mobile health clinic which provides free preventive care to animals and their human caregivers in the surrounding communities.
HF: Emily, thanks for talking with me. Can you share how your experiences within clinical medicine, including mental health services, have shaped your view of what children need from their families, friends, teachers, doctors, and society?
EP: Within my general pediatric training I try to incorporate pediatric mental health at every opportunity, such as asking a teenager the right question only to learn that they are thinking about hurting themselves, or wondering why a young patient would have a tantrum during a genital exam. Mental health issues are always present, but sometimes they take a little more directness and digging, which some clinicians find awkward. That awkwardness may prevent clinicians from asking the obvious next question.
My experiences in clinical medicine have helped me to understand that children’s needs are simple in theory, but made incredibly more complicated by the quantity, quality, and timing of the needs being met.
Here’s what I mean by that:
Quantity: Children’s needs must be met by a large variety of people in their lives—including immediate family, extended family, teachers, peers, daycare providers, nannies, and so on.
Quality: Their needs must be met in a way that makes children feel secure and confident, and if the quality is lacking and that goal is not fully achieved, the consequences can be similar to those that result if those needs were not met at all.
Timing: Where children are developmentally when needs are not met drastically changes the impact of failing to meet their needs.
HF: How did you come to include animals in your scope of concern, and what in particular unites your concern for children and animals?
EP: I’ve always been an animal lover, growing up alongside rescue dogs. I thank my mom for introducing me to animal shelters and for taking me to visit them at a young age. Seeing the need—animals without homes—left an irreversible impression on me as a child. But my passion and advocacy really matured after my husband and I rescued our first dog, an anxious and loving pitbull named Kai.
We both quickly learned about the stigma and plight surrounding shelter animals, particularly pitbulls. It happens organically—you watch how the world (including friends and family) judges your animal and you, and it’s hard to look away from what you experience. And these aren’t innocent judgments. Such stereotypes permeate our society, resulting in the [killing] of hundreds of thousands of innocent dogs annually. I believe those who adopt shelter animals must be more than simply owners—they must become tireless advocates too.
In addition to our two rescued pitbulls, I volunteer at the SF SPCA and my husband and I serve as dog foster parents.
I see my pediatric work and my rescue dog work along a continuum and they are very much linked. Both [children and animals] are especially susceptible to vulnerabilities. They both require allies with deep levels of empathy, and both also need advocates to give them voices.
HF: You’ve talked with me before about your future desire to provide a safe place for children and animals. Can you talk a bit more about what you’d like to accomplish in this area?
EP: There is something about animals that makes them incredible teachers of the intangibles—patience, compassion, kindness, and empathy. They also provide something we all need—companionship and loyalty (especially in a world that is increasingly lonely and isolating). Record levels of adults and teenagers report not having a close friend or someone they can trust. Animals can’t replace human connection, but they can go a long way.
Finding ways to connect youth in need with animals in need combines two problems and creates a [unified] solution. Take the epidemic of dogs without homes in the overcrowded shelter system. These are pack animals that usually sit alone in a small kennel for 23 hours a day. It’s devastating for them physically and emotionally.
Imagine taking kids in need, such as foster children or children with chronic diseases or mental illness, and pairing them with a dog in need for walks, training, and play. In the short term, each provides the other companionship and a sense of purpose that teaches discipline, responsibility, and the joy of impacting another life. In the long term, kids learn about animal welfare, causing them to be more mindful of the work our society must do to create more just outcomes for animals.
If kids are raised with a commitment to animal justice, they’ll become the adults that end animal injustice.
HF: You are a great example of living your values, and you appear to do that as a team with your husband. What drives your efforts to translate the political into the personal, and vice versa?
EP: If we don’t live our values, then it’s a stretch to call them “our values.” In such a case, we are merely saying the words, but not doing the work. And values only mean something when they’re backed by action.
For us that means adopting dogs who may have issues, fostering dogs despite limited space and time, and eventually adopting children. On one hand, this decision is a more uncomfortable path that can come with a lot of challenges and stress. But, on the other hand, it feels far more uncomfortable to know of a need and to do nothing about it. We have to put skin in the game if we want to be true to ourselves and see change. This effort needs to extend to our day to day personal lives, and it means working on systemic change and getting at the root causes of challenges via political action and advocacy.
Photo courtesy of Emily Peitzman.