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In 2001, a young girl from Argentina sat in a Florida classroom that could best be described as completely foreign to her. But the obstacles she would face, particularly the language barrier, would not be unsurmountable.
"When my parents moved our family here, I didn't speak English at all," immunologist Natalia Chaimowitz, M.D., Ph.D., recalled. "So that first year of learning to understand and speak English was important but I was able to prove myself."
Along with becoming bilingual and navigating the normal, sometimes turbulent, waters of high school, Dr. Chaimowitz walked away with a valuable lesson that she still applies to her life and career.
"We must treat each other with respect because we are all important," she said. "I think that comes from those years when I was almost written off because I was 'just the girl who didn't speak English.' I want every person to know they have worth."
If only those short-sighted individuals had a chance to speak to her as a 5-year-old who confidently would declare that she was going to be a pediatrician. Not just the standard 'I want to be a doctor' but, specifically, a pediatrician.
"I have always loved science and learning how the body works," she explained. "So, there was never a doubt that this would be my career."
But how does this inquisitive nature and perpetual desire to learn not only lead Dr. Chaimowitz to immunology but to being the foundation that Cook Children's will build a new specialty clinic for Immunology? Ironically, that answer lies in unanswered questions.
While as an 18-year-old freshman doing pre-med coursework, it's surprising that this field of medicine would be Dr. Chaimowitz's passion given how her first exposure to the field of immunology unfolded.
"I would ask the professor questions regularly about immunologic topics, studies and problems and he would often reply, 'we don't know,'" she looked back with a laugh. "I remember thinking, 'but you're the professor and supposed to know all the answers.'"
But the vast unknown that the immunologists try to make known would become evident to Dr. Chaimowitz as she progressed through a combined M.D./Ph.D. program at Virginia Commonwealth University. "When the chance to rotate into the immunology lab came up, I admit I was resistant," she said. "But really looking at the work they were doing, it was clear that there truly is so much unknown that we're still learning. I guess that first professor was right all along. Now I want to be the one to help find those answers."
While she acknowledges there's still much to learn, it's safe to say that Dr. Chaimowitz is unwilling to sit idly by. "Especially when a child is involved and struggling, we must help," she explained. "I'm very honest with families when we face the unknown. I need them to understand that while we may not know exactly what's wrong with their child's immune system at that moment, we will support them and work toward those answers together."
Such commitment fits perfectly with the Cook Children's Promise and it's reassuring that it is at the heart of this new endeavor for Dr. Chaimowitz and the Immunology clinic at Cook Children's.
Her enthusiastic outlook to be a difference maker in patients' lives and to bring a clinic exclusively dedicated to immunology to North Texas is not only admirable but inspiring. "It's exciting to be able to create an amazing program that will fill a definite void," Dr. Chaimowitz shared optimistically. "Problems with the immune systems are really, very rare, and unless someone thinks about them or considers them as a possible diagnosis, they are missed. We know this is the case because it often takes the child getting very ill before immune disorders are explored. This clinic is an incredible opportunity for earlier diagnosis, which will lead to quicker intervention and treatment."
Dr. Chaimowitz continued, "The immunology research over the last ten years has shown us so much. Every two years there's a publication that summarizes all known immune defects and 10 years ago, there was 150. Now there's over 400! So with about 40 new disorders discovered yearly, we can't wait to help address them sooner rather than later."
Think about this like a night sky. We can look up and see thousands of stars with the naked eye but there are billions beyond that. You just need a telescope to see them. Similarly, seeing the unknown diseases that affect our kids will always be a profound need. Thankfully, Cook Children's has caregivers, providers, researchers and physicians, like Dr. Chaimowitz, ready to partner with each other and parents for our patients' well-being.
Because together #WeAreCookChildrens.