In the mid-’90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered an exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy. And yet, doctors today are not trained in routine screening or treatment. Now, the exposure I’m talking about is not a pesticide or a packaging chemical. It’s childhood trauma.
Okay. What kind of trauma am I talking about here? I’m not talking about failing a test or losing a basketball game. I am talking about threats that are so severe or pervasive that they literally get under our skin and change our physiology: things like abuse or neglect, or growing up with a parent who struggles with mental illness or substance dependence.
Now, for a long time, I viewed these things in the way I was trained to view them, either as a social problem — refer to social services — or as a mental health problem — refer to mental health services. And then something happened to make me rethink my entire approach. When I finished my residency, I wanted to go someplace where I felt really needed, someplace where I could make a difference. So I came to work for California Pacific Medical Center, one of the best private hospitals in Northern California, and together, we opened a clinic in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the poorest, most underserved neighborhoods in San Francisco. Now, prior to that point, there had been only one pediatrician in all of Bayview to serve more than 10,000 children, so we hung a shingle, and we were able to provide top-quality care regardless of ability to pay. It was so cool. We targeted the typical health disparities: access to care, immunization rates, asthma hospitalization rates, and we hit all of our numbers. We felt very proud of ourselves.
But then I started noticing a disturbing trend. A lot of kids were being referred to me for ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but when I actually did a thorough history and physical, what I found was that for most of my patients, I couldn’t make a diagnosis of ADHD. Most of the kids I was seeing had experienced such severe trauma that it felt like something else was going on. Somehow I was missing something important.
Now, before I did my residency, I did a master’s degree in public health, and one of the things that they teach you in public health school is that if you’re a doctor and you see 100 kids that all drink from the same well, and 98 of them develop diarrhea, you can go ahead and write that prescription for dose after dose after dose of antibiotics, or you can walk over and say, “What the hell is in this well?” So I began reading everything that I could get my hands on about how exposure to adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children.
And then one day, my colleague walked into my office, and he said, “Dr. Burke, have you seen this?” In his hand was a copy of a research study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. That day changed my clinical practice and ultimately my career.