Social Worker Shelly Baer Is a Voice for the Chronically Ill

A consummate social worker who has spent her career helping abused children, dysfunctional families, and people with HIV, Shelly Baer is embracing a new role at the Miller School: socializing physicians in training on the dos and don’ts of treating patients with chronic illnesses.

Delivered with her charming smile, Baer’s sage advice to medical students and pediatric residents comes straight from the heart, and her own experience. Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 3, she endured six surgeries by the time she was in her mid-20s. Yet, two decades later, she is more pained by what never happened.

She can’t remember her doctors ever telling her she had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Even when she was “stripped, examined, stared at, poked, prodded, had X-rays, blood sticks, PT, OT, splints and shots,’’ no one explained what was happening to her body.

As she matured and grew interested in boys, doctors who had known her most of her life never inquired, “So, how’s your love life? Are you dating?’’ Neither did they ask, “What excites you? What lights you up?’’

Such simple questions, Baer tells residents and students during the informal dialogues she has led since joining the Jay Weiss Center for Social Medicine and Health Equity in 2008, would have gone a long way in making her feel normal, in allaying her unfounded fears that her joint limitations would prohibit her from having sex, or leading a productive life.

It’s the reason why she intersperses her life story with “take aways” for pediatric residents and future physicians. Among them:

“Get to know the whole person, not just their medical problems, as you are going to be caring for them for a while.’’

“Never say it’s not going to hurt – children know when you’re lying.’’

“Don’t say, ‘You’re such a good patient; you’re such a good girl.’ I heard that a lot, and what does that mean? You could say, ‘I admire your courage.’’’

Ironically, as Baer earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and special education from the University of Miami and a master’s in social work from Yeshiva University, she feared she wouldn’t have the stamina to work full time. But Baer proved unstoppable. Hired out of grad school in 1991 to counsel pregnant substance-abusers at the Miller School’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, she left four years later to work with several child abuse and family preservation programs.

Returning to the Miller School in 2000, Baer joined the Department of Pediatrics and counseled HIV-positive kids and their parents for seven years before moving to the Jay Weiss Center and discovering a new interest: research. As the clinical supervisor for the COACH (Counseling on Adherence and Community Health) project, she is helping test the community health worker model of care for HIV-positive patients who, for various reasons, aren’t taking the antiretroviral medications that would prolong their lives.

“We’re addressing all the social-psychological issues that impact health so it really resonates with me,’’ Baer says. “It’s medicine with a social worker heart.’’

At the center, Baer also wrote the Advocacy Code Card, a handy pocket guide for physicians listing the benefits and social services their patients may need, and updated ACCESS Miami, an accessibility guide for people with disabilities she wrote as a fellow in the Miami Fellows Initiative, a prestigious leadership program funded through the Dade Community Foundation.

Along the way, Baer obviously found something she thought she lost long ago: her voice. Once an outgoing child who would sing to strangers, Baer says she became shy and withdrawn after her diagnosis. But as Lee Sanders, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of pediatrics who directs the center’s Medical Student Pathway in Social Medicine, noted as Baer addressed pathway students last month, pediatricians engage their patients much differently today than when she was growing up – thanks to advocates like her.

“The reason why it’s changed is because of you, Shelly,’’ Sanders told Baer. “That’s why it’s happening. It’s because of your voice.’’

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