A Different Kind of Medicine

Meet Detroit Pediatrician Nakia Williams

The alarm sounds at 5:45 a.m. for Dr. Nakia Williams, a pediatrician and married mother of two.

Dr. Williams, 38, says that it’s important she makes time for her morning Bible devotion and prayer, which helps her to reflect and recharge. “Working with so many people and addressing their needs can be challenging.”

Williams is a doctor at the Henry Ford Pediatric Clinic at New Center One. She’s spent the last six years here, seeing nearly 25 patients per day – one every 20 minutes. Most of her patients are under the age of five.

Dr. Nakia Williams

But before heading off to a packed day at the clinic to see children and concerned parents, she has her own children to attend to – 2-year old son, Zion, and 13-year-old step-daughter, Zoe, whom she likes to refer to as her “bonus child.”

Williams tries to drop her son off at daycare most days and is grateful to have found a place she trusts. “I’ll stay for a while to make sure he’s comfortable. I know he’s going to be there for ten hours until I return,” said Dr. Williams.

She’ll be the first to admit that her perspective as a parent raising two children in Detroit impacts her work as a pediatrician here. “I certainly believe that my personal experience helps to guide my advice,” she explained. “We live in the city, so we are aware of many resources that are out there.”

It’s her local perspective – plus her holistic approach – that benefits Dr. Williams’ patients.

Dr. Nakia Wiliams visits with a family in her office

The importance of working with children under five does not escape her. “Most of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years. The child is learning more things at this point than perhaps any other time in their life,” she said.

Our families are dealing with life and all that means. We need to find ways to support them so they can stay ahead of the game rather than find themselves in a position of just trying to keep their heads above water. – Dr. Nakia Williams

Treating children during such a pivotal point in their lives, Williams uses the same approach she learned working with children in Flint during medical school: you have to treat the whole child. And to treat the whole child, you have to know the whole picture.

Williams sees children for a variety of health reasons, the most common being check-ups, skin issues, and respiratory-related ailments such as colds, coughs and asthma. These respiratory issues, she pointed out, can be exacerbated by living in Detroit. The rate of children’s asthma-related ER visits here is about twice that for the rest of Michigan.

But she sees patients for behavioral problems and developmental delays too, issues that are all connected to a child’s basic health care and impact their development. She often works together with parents to stop problems from snowballing. Even a mild speech delay, if untreated, can lead to delays in potty training. It can also lead to a child starting school with other delays and adversely affect their education.

“As a pediatrician, I have the privilege of partnering with parents to help to raise a multitude of children,” she said, but she acknowledges there are many obstacles. She sees toddlers who aren’t getting enough sleep because parents are working long, varied hours to make ends meet. She sees parents who are so busy and stressed trying to provide for their families that figuring out how to get their child ready for kindergarten becomes a lower priority. She is often asked about job openings and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children, nutrition and food services), as well as counseling options for children when a family is broken up by death, divorce or protective services.

Dr. Nakia Williams with a patient

Williams believes that a pediatrician’s office should be a one-stop shop for families, a place that not only addresses health care but the many other challenges Detroit families grapple with. She believes that schools, behavioral health services, and pediatrics sometimes operate in unnecessary silos. “Our families are dealing with life and all that means,” she explained. “We need to find ways to support them so they can stay ahead of the game rather than find themselves in a position of just trying to keep their heads above water. I already write letters to help keep utilities on, refer parents for additional mental health resources, and help them with work attendance problems. These processes should be streamlined.”

She imagines multidisciplinary clinics in high-risk neighborhoods across the city that would provide health care providers, social services, financial support agencies, academic supports and dentists, as well as safe places for children to learn and play. Even the simple act of placing a social worker in every pediatrician’s office would help tremendously, she says – allowing doctors more time to deal with patients’ direct health needs rather than matching families with needed services and resources.

Now is our time to act. We should be doing better than this for our children.
– Dr. Nakia Williams

Williams is amassing quite the stockpile of information on available supports here in Detroit and often reaches out directly to children’s schools to learn how they are progressing between visits. She teaches her medical students and residents to do the same: “They are learning a different kind of medicine at our clinic. We are not only addressing bread-and-butter pediatrics but dealing with social issues that affect our patients.”

She is continually impressed with how her patients look at the world and deal with challenges. “Children are amazing patients to take care of. They say ‘Someone take care of my mommy.’ They are always worried about someone else. Isn’t that an awesome example to live by?” she said. Now, she’s frustrated that we aren’t adequately taking care of them. Despite the fact that we know how crucial early years are for a child’s development, we don’t do enough to support them. “Free public education begins at age five,” she explained. “I think parents can be confused about the subtle mixed message society sends: first five is important, but preschool/early education is optional.”

Despite this, she is hopeful. She thinks we are reaching a critical point in Detroit with more opportunities for early childhood education and intervention in the city. “There are several dedicated individuals and funding resources that are committed to helping. Now is our time to act,” she said. “We should be doing better than this for our children.”