Alaska doctor receives Mother Joseph Award from Sisters of Providence

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Dr. Cathy Baldwin-Johnson with Provincial Leader Judith Desmarais, SP.

Dr. Cathy Baldwin-Johnson never wanted to become an expert back in 1994 when she took a course on how to

evaluate children for signs of sexual abuse; she just wanted to do a better job of taking care of her young patients in her practice in Alaska.

“But when people learned I had gotten the training, the floodgates started to open,” she recalled. A former Providence employee in the Primary Care Clinic at Providence Matanuska Health Care in Palmer, Alaska, she currently is medical director of Alaska CARES (Child Abuse Response and Evaluation Services), part of the Children’s Hospital at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Doctor Cathy, as her patients know her, is also the newest recipient of the Mother Joseph Award.

Fourteen staff members at Alaska CARES nominated her for the annual award given by the Sisters of Providence to a person “who exemplifies the values and courage of Mother Joseph,” the first provincial superior of the Sisters of Providence in the West. The nominators wrote that she “has dedicated her entire professional career to caring for the needs of children – who we know are often the most vulnerable and in the most need of a careful, watchful eye, and a compassionate heart and hand … ”

“What allows Dr. Baldwin-Johnson to continue this difficult work day after day is that this is her MISSION, this is her life’s work, her passion, and this is what she has committed to, much like the most insurmountable task the Sisters of Providence took on when they came to Alaska so many years ago,” the nominators explained. “She will not rest until children’s voices are heard and they are safe, nurtured and well cared for throughout our state.”

The award presentation, followed by a reception, was held on June 2 at the Health Atrium at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Provincial Councilor Jo Ann Showalter, SP, who led this year’s awards process, traveled to Anchorage to make the presentation along with Provincial Superior Judith Desmarais, SP.

Dr. Cathy and Mother Joseph “would have made a good team,” said Provincial Councilor Jo Ann Showalter, SP.

Impelled to action by a deep faith

“Sometimes, a person has such a deep and abiding sense of love and compassion that they are impelled to action. Doctor Cathy is one of those people,” Sister Jo Ann said. “She has such a wellspring of love for the children of Alaska, especially those who have been abused, that she has used her prodigious gifts, talents and skills in many, many ways for the betterment of children. She and Mother Joseph would have been a good team.”

Cathy, born in Portland, Ore., was a year old when her family moved to Anchorage. Her father received an early honorable discharge from the Navy to return home to his 19-year-old wife who had just lost her parents in a car accident and was caring for her infant and her orphaned 15-year-old brother. Cathy, the oldest of four children, spent a year in Fairbanks at age 4 or 5. From 1966 to 1969, while her father was stationed in Vietnam to provide contracted military communications support, the rest of the family lived in Bangkok, Thailand. She learned the language “well enough to get by, go to the market, negotiate for things and get around the city,” taking a taxi or a three-wheeled motorized tricycle to school. She returned to Anchorage to a different neighborhood and the challenge of making new friends.

Her interest in a career in medicine began at a young age. One of her mother’s sisters was a nurse and her godmother. “Aunt Lila was my hero. She was a surgical nurse and she wrote chapters in textbooks. Even into her 80s she was in health-care nursing.” Cathy thought she’d follow in her aunt’s footsteps, but her father said, “You’re smart enough. You could be a doctor.” Later she would learn that becoming a doctor had been her father’s childhood ambition, but medical school was not financially viable for him as the youngest of 11 children, nine of whom survived.

After delivering her last baby in 2008, Doctor Cathy began spending most of her time at Alaska CARES, Anchorage’s Child Advocacy Center.

Red Cross volunteer in a Bangkok hospital

Cathy was a Red Cross volunteer in a Bangkok hospital and at Providence in Anchorage while in high school. “I realized it was going to be a really, really long haul, so I pushed real hard through high school.” Ahead of schedule in the midst of her sophomore year, she thought about taking a break and using an Ameripass to tour America via Greyhound bus. (Remember the $69 that bought three to four months of unlimited travel?)

With her parents’ consent and some parameters like knowing someone in each place she went, she zigzagged the country. She stopped on the campus of Arizona State University at the end of February/beginning of March, when it would have been about 40 below zero in Alaska, and the campus had working fountains and lemons and oranges on the trees. Cathy and her fiancé Rick Johnson decided to move to Arizona and spent their last two years at the university. They married between their junior and senior years and are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.

Cathy was accepted into the University of Washington’s WAMI program (before the addition of Wyoming made it WWAMI) and spent her first year in medical school in Fairbanks. Rick got a job with a bank. They moved to Seattle for the last three years of medical school at UW and she did her residency in family medicine at Swedish Medical Center.

Her dream of being a family doc included flying

“I had a picture in my head of being a family doctor,” she recalled. “I wanted to do the full spectrum in a small town in Alaska, learning to fly my own plane and saving the world, basically. At some point I realized that while some doctors do that (flying), a lot have died. You have to be awfully good at it.” Instead, she went through residency training to do things she thought she would have to be able to do in a small rural practice.

She did obstetrics and C-sections, but also learned to do hernias and appendectomies by assisting. “The surgical training was very valuable because I could assist and be there for the patient in surgery. Patients really liked that, especially with things that were scary for them.”

Cathy spent her first two years of practice in Anchorage, working part time after the birth of her son with the family doctor who had delivered two of her siblings. She later opened her own practice in the Mat-Su Valley, where she wanted to raise her own children. She chose Wasilla, becoming the first woman physician there and the only one delivering babies and providing obstetric care. She was pregnant with her daughter in the first year of her solo practice and hired another physician to start two weeks before her due date. It was really important to Doctor Cathy that her children be close by so she could be a doctor and a mom. “We had child care in my office from the get go, for me and the employees. The kids all went through chicken pox together. My children knew if they needed me, I was there, so they knew they were a priority regardless of the craziness of my work.”

Her patients’ needs led to a deeper role

Her practice was slowly growing, and changing. “Parents began to bring their concerns about things their kids said, their behaviors and symptoms of possible sexual abuse. Law enforcement would ask for an evaluation, but I didn’t have adequate training for that.” The course to give her that training changed everything. Doctor Cathy began to get emergency room calls asking her to do all the sexual assault exams. That was impossible, but she learned from a nurse about Sexual Assault Response Teams and adopted that model, training professionals from multiple disciplines to work together. “I went to the Mat-Su Valley hospital and said I can’t do it all, but here’s a model. Let’s get people trained.”

As a volunteer medical director in that role, she realized that evaluation in the office or an emergency room is not a great model for kids. A good child advocacy model offers a safe haven for children. Everyone comes to the child, rather than shifting the child from agency to agency, forced to tell their story multiple times, behind locked doors and at metal tables bolted to the floor, seated in chairs where their feet don’t touch the ground. “The process itself is traumatizing.”

Spearheaded development of child advocacy center

Doctor Cathy and a colleague, pediatric nurse practitioner Marg Volz, spearheaded pulling together a group of community members representing child protection, schools, mental health, law enforcement and others to develop a child advocacy center. They formed a nonprofit board, she became volunteer medical director, and The Children’s Place was born in 1999. “Some things are just meant to be,” Doctor Cathy said. They received 10 of the first 10 grants they wrote. It was easy to demonstrate the need.

“I feel led to do child abuse work. I loved delivering babies, going through pregnancy with women and hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time. There are not many better feelings. It is such a privilege. It was hard to give that up.” She also helps families go through the process when things don’t go well, when they need to grieve or get help. It’s hard to know that terrible things happened to some of those babies she delivered. “For adult patients, maybe a doctor was the first person they ever told the terrible things that had happened to them.”

She talked about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study done between the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. The subjects were middle-aged, mostly white, employed and with some college education. Not a high-risk population, and yet the more adversity they experienced at a young age, the more health problems they had as adults – &lldquo;cancer, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, you name the disease; the more likely they were to have it. We need to do a better job of understanding and do better prevention and intervention so they don’t carry that burden for the rest of their lives.”

Committed to the service of children and families

After delivering her last baby in 2008, Doctor Cathy began spending most of her time at Alaska CARES, the Child Advocacy Center in Anchorage founded in 1996. She describes this work as “very, very fulfilling. I work at a place that is safe for kids who have had terrible things happen to them. It is a place to tell their story and to get help for them and their family. Then they won’t suffer all of these ill effects.”

Admittedly, doctors and nurses only have control over so much. They can’t make decisions for law enforcement or for social workers, she said, but through a multi-disciplinary approach they can explain the high risk of lethal child abuse, help them see the dangers and even intervene by going to court and explaining to a judge and jury.

When children are abused, many of their own parents have a trauma history, Doctor Cathy said. “They don’t know how to keep their kids safe. They don’t get up intending to hurt or neglect their kids, or to leave them with people who will abuse them. They don’t have the skills. We need to work on prevention projects.” She was surprised by the Mother Joseph Award, “and it was humbling to see that the last person chosen in Alaska started Beans Café.” (Lynne Ballew of Anchorage, founder of the drop-in center and free restaurant, received the Mother Joseph Award in 2008.) “I’m certainly very passionate about the work I do, supporting my colleagues that do this work, as well.

I don’t do this work in isolation; it’s not just me. I work with an incredible group that is committed, passionate and dedicated to these kids and to this work.”

She is especially proud that her children are continuing to give to the community. Her son Travis, a commercial pilot, volunteers at Alaska CARES’ Kids Day, and her daughter Kristin, a chef and caterer, and her husband Mike McLaren donate wine for fundraising events for The Children’s Place.

At 61, she’s not through yet. “I need to find and train a replacement for me.” Just like Mother Joseph, making sure that the legacy continues.