A Dose of Quality Care in an Area Short on It

By Alice Reid
Monday, December 17, 2007

Annette Cherry remembers calling the pediatrician in the middle of the night, when her grandson was having an asthma attack.

"It was scary," said Cherry, 68, who has been raising three grandchildren, ages 7, 14 and 19. "They always helped, and they said, 'Don't ever hesitate to call us.' . . . Those doctors, they're part of my family."

"Those doctors" are the team of physicians and a dentist who deliver Children's Hospital's brand of first-class medicine to some of the District's most health-challenged neighborhoods.

Pediatrician Rhonique Harris, six other Children's Hospital doctors and dentist Kenneth Keyes operate a clinic in Southeast's sleek, 2-year-old Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus -- better known as THEARC -- on Mississippi Avenue SE.

Youngsters made 6,000 visits to the clinic last fiscal year. Business is so brisk that Harris estimates the number will rise to nearly 10,000 this year.

Harris aims to offer families in the poorest neighborhoods the same level of pediatric and dental care available in, say, McLean or Rockville, regardless of whether families can pay.

To that end, the clinic is open each weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., a generous window to help parents bring in a sick child without taking time off work.

Harris is a fierce advocate for her families. "A lot of them are working very hard. The family may have lost a job or may not be able to afford insurance. And lots of times they get labeled," she said.

Most, she said, are simply trying to do the best they can for their children.

Typical is Cindy King of Northeast. One recent snowy afternoon, the mother of five sat in the dentist's office, which occupies a large blue van parked outside THEARC. She had brought Zawane, 12, and his sister Shineda, 16, for their first dental visits.

"I'm just starting the dental," she said. "Frankly, it wasn't my major focus, but now I realize how important it is. I want to make it a habit."

Many of the clinic's patients live complex, sometimes chaotic, lives, and the clinic reaches far beyond throat cultures and antibiotics to make sure children get other help they need. Whether it's clothing or legal advice, the clinic refers families to the right source of assistance, Harris said.

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