Nadine Burke Harris

Nadine Burke Harris – photo: Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

A Passion to Heal

Established about three years ago, the Center for Youth Wellness focuses on treating children who have experienced adverse childhood events and toxic stress – issues like neglect, abuse, exposure to violence and household dysfunction that can damage a child’s developing brain and body.

Medicine is meant to heal many ills, but Nadine Burke Harris has found that adverse childhood experiences are a health issue that is often overlooked.

The 1996 graduate of UC Davis School of Medicine has spent much of her career trying to improve the health of children in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco. Hunters Point has been identified as an area of extreme poverty. Much of the city’s African-American population lives in the largely industrial area that once was home to a Navy shipyard, now a sprawling Superfund site.

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Burke Harris grew up in Palo Alto and attended public school there. She graduated from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in integrative biology and then received a medical degree from UC Davis, where she was co-director of the Imani Clinic in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento. She completed her medical residency at Stanford University’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.

She was initially recruited by the California Pacific Medical Center to identify and address health disparities in San Francisco and soon was able to open and operate a clinic in Bayview Hunters Point. The clinic focused on addressing the dramatic health disparities experienced by the Bayview Hunters Point community such as high asthma hospitalizations, high rates of obesity and low vaccination rates.

Though she was successful in improving these traditional measures of health disparities, it wasn’t long before she saw her efforts weren’t really addressing the true driver of her patients’ ills. When Burke Harris read the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, she felt like she finally understood the root cause of many of the health issues she was seeing in her patients.

Earlier this year, a partnership among Burke Harris’ Center for Youth Wellness, California Pacific Medical Center’s Bayview Child Health Center and the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center’s Children’s Advocacy Center opened a facility for health and wellness services for children and families in the area. The location offers a pediatric clinic, behavioral health and case management services, dental and nutrition services as well as a coordinated response to child abuse.

Burke Harris’ own efforts were recently buoyed by a $3 million grant from Google’s philanthropic arm. The grant supports her Center for Youth Wellness. Established about three years ago, the center focuses on treating children who have experienced adverse childhood events and toxic stress – issues like neglect, abuse, exposure to violence and household dysfunction that can damage a child’s developing brain and body.

“A lot of the things we’re trying to do – there’s no billing code,” Burke Harris says. “What the Google gift allows us to do is really have the resources to hire the team and evaluate our outcomes and really try some of these novel approaches that would literally be impossible to do otherwise.”