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Profile in Compassion: Serving Needy Children and their Families: Bill Underwood, MD

By John A. Patterson M.D., MSPH, FAAFP

I first met Bill Underwood, MD during my pediatrics rotation as part of the family practice residency at UK in 1978. At that time, he was voluntary medical director of the non-profit Baby Health Service (BHS), a position he held for almost 30 of its 100 years. Bill first learned about BHS during his pediatrics residency at UK in 1966. At that time, residents could not work at BHS unsupervised but his department chair eventually looked the other way when he saw Bill working there regularly. He says ‘I fell in love with these families. They couldn’t afford medical care and had sick children. It was a wonderful experience for me to be able to meet that need.’

dr_underwood_kydocspring15After practicing pediatrics many years at Lexington Clinic and UK, he retired this past December but will continue to see patients at BHS one day each week and other days as needed. Nurse Donna Sizemore explained that Bill does not want the clinic to ever be closed 4 consecutive days, for fear of potential consequences for a sick child or worried parent. For this reason, he and his wife keep the clinic open the Friday after Thanksgiving every year, with no other staff on site. She says he is ‘driven from within’ to serve needy families with children, even though he himself modestly suggests it’s just his way of responding to his ‘lifelong ADHD’.

Where did this interest in compassionate service come from? He recalls working alongside his parents, serving meals and gathering donations for needy families while growing up in Frankfort. His pediatrics department chair at Vanderbilt was one of the most compassionate people he has ever known, always finding ways to make medical care available for poor children.

Bill is a founding board member and life board member of the local Ronald
McDonald House, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary providing free lodging for families of hospitalized children. He is also on the board of Camp Horsin’ Around, which offers recreational experiences for children with chronic conditions on 190 acres in Boyle and Mercer counties. He says volunteering for these charities ‘is my chance to give back to the community.’ He also feels lots of local support, saying ‘Lexington is a town that cares for people.’

His conversations with children and parents combine commonsense with a long-range biopsychosocial view. Especially now that most of BHS families are non-English speaking, he gets great satisfaction seeing immigrant families evolve and his young patients grow up to become good citizens. Having seen so many parents who still speak no English after years of US residency, he encourages these families to speak only English at the dinner table so parents and children can all benefit from their multi-cultural experience. He tells troubled teens that graduating from high school and getting further education can make a huge difference in there material welfare as well as their family’s overall health and wellbeing. One such former patient came to BHS one day, gave him a big hug and said “I graduated from law school today.”

Bill’s compassionate commitment is kept alive by seeing a sick child recover, once again being able to fuss and fight and push the doctor away. He tells medical students and residents not to go into pediatrics if their feelings are easily hurt since most children between the ages of 9 months and 3 years don’t like the doctor.

His talks to families emphasize parental encouragement and confidencebuilding. Regarding sibling rivalry, he coaches parents to tell the older child 5 times a day ‘You’re the best big brother/sister I ever saw. We’re going to read 2 stories tonight.’ Mothers have reported that this helps tremendously. He also reminds parents that they have a relationship outside of childrearing and need to spend some time regularly discussing how their day has been.

He agrees that most medical students enter medicine with a service mentality and compassionate motivation and believes it is up to physicians in academia and in community practice to provide compassionate role models to help keep that flame of compassion alive in the learners we encounter.

In retirement, he will continue to give talks to UK pediatric residents, covering topics often neglected in formal academic training- sibling rivalry, toilet training and the relationship between parents. In the process, he will continue doing what he has done for over 50 years- serving needy children and their families.

About the Author
Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, specializing in stress-related chronic disease and burnout prevention for helping professionals. He can be reached through his website at http://www.mindbodystudio.org

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