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Trinity Magazine 2007 | Susan Widmayer ’68

Susan Widmayer ’68

Bringing Humanity to Broward County

by Ann Pauley

As you walk into the Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Ft. Lauderdale, you immediately know that this is a special place. Children and their families cheerfully wait for their appointments. Staff members greet you with a warm smile. The walls are bright and colorful and adorned with engaging murals. Artwork by children adds to the welcoming atmosphere.

Throughout the offices and exam rooms, more than 170 doctors, social workers, nutritionists, psychologists, speech therapists, nurses and other healthcare staff are providing comprehensive services to more than 10,000 patients each year. The patients are children with special needs and their families, and most are low income families.

The Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center has come a long way from being a clinical research project housed in a storage closet in North Broward Hospital in 1983. But thanks to the vision, passion and entrepreneurial spirit of the founder and executive director, Susan Widmayer ’68, the Center has become the largest child health care provider in Broward County, Florida. Her pioneering work has earned her numerous awards and the Center is recognized nationally as a model for providing comprehensive care to children with special needs.

“Susan is one of the most compassionate people that I know and you see that throughout the clinic,” says Stephanie Claville, the Center’s coordinator of community relations and development. “This is a very warm and inviting place. Following her example, staff members stop and take their time with patients and are very understanding of their needs,” she adds.

The Center’s largest program, Early Steps, serves more than 5,000 children, from birth to 36 months, with special needs, such as a developmental delay, a chronic illness, cerebral palsy or other acute medical conditions. Early Steps provides families with services to enhance their child’s development so they are ready to learn when they enter school. Each family is assigned a social worker who coordinates a comprehensive web of care, which includes medical care, social welfare services, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, parenting classes and other services. This comprehensive approach – known as “wrap-around” services – yields dramatic and positive results for the children and their families.

The Center’s focus on comprehensive care dates back to the 1970s when Widmayer was earning her doctorate in psychology at the University of Miami. Faced with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, the Florida legislature established research clinics to evaluate premature babies after they were released from intensive care. “We weren’t providing care, we weren’t doing any intervention,” says Widmayer. “We were simply evaluating them, and identifying the factors that contributed to their progress or decline in health.”

“One night, I was going home at 7:30 p.m. and I saw this woman and her baby waiting for a bus that would take her on a two hour trip home,” recalls Widmayer. “I recognized her and I knew that she was desperately poor and that she had been at the hospital for an 8:00 a.m. evaluation appointment. Because we were just doing clinical research, I realized that we didn’t really help this woman who made such a sacrifice. I wanted to find ways to provide families with baby formula, bus passes and diapers. I was told that wasn’t our role. I was not happy with that response.”

When Widmayer was recruited by North Broward Hospital to run its research clinic in Ft. Lauderdale, “I was determined that we were going to be doing some intervention and treatment – we were going to provide health care and support services to these children and their families.”

At Broward, Widmayer started with a nurse practitioner and a secretary, and they worked out of a small closet. “We fought over who could use the desk that day,” she recalls with a smile. “From the beginning, we figured out ways to provide tangible services to these families. We contacted companies that make baby formula and diapers and asked them to donate supplies.”

From those modest beginnings, the Center grew quickly. “We established a food pantry and an emergency cash fund so these families could pay their rent and electricity bill. We received a Ford Foundation grant to provide health care services to Haitian families. That program really made a difference and attracted quite a bit of attention in the state. We then started applying for federal, state and county grants so that we could provide wrap-around services – a comprehensive web of health and social services that addresses the needs of children and their families.”

Today, the Center has a $13 million budget, with 90% of its funding coming from federal, state and county grants. “Our focus here is really to support families – especially the mother,” says Widmayer. “Among the families we see, 80% are very impoverished. It’s astounding that in this country there are so many families that are so poor. If we can support the mother, by modeling parenting skills, modeling kindness, and providing support for her – food, clothing, rent money – that support will not only affect the child who is our patient, but also the rest of the children. Our job is to make life just a little bit easier for these families.”

When asked how she sees her role as entrepreneur, Widmayer’s response is on point. “If you ask me what I do, I’d say I am in sales. I talk to the staff, I talk to funders, I talk to anyone who will listen. I try to sell them on the importance of changing children’s lives. With my staff, my job is to keep telling them how important their job is, how essential it is not to give up. My job is to create an environment where really committed people who are creative and smart can figure out solutions to problems.”

“Dr. Widmayer brought humanity to Broward County,” says Dr. Ana Calderon, assistant administrator of the Center, who has known Widmayer for more than 25 years. “She is very charismatic,” she continues. “Something magical happens when she stands in front of a group – she speaks from the heart.”

Outreach coordinator Claville notes that a hallmark of Widmayer’s leadership is her “keen assessment of what the children’s needs are and then addressing those needs. For example, we didn’t start with services for children with HIV/AIDS, but when it emerged as a health care crisis, we created a program. When those kids couldn’t get dental care, Susan figured out how to provide that service.”

Today, the Center is the only non-university site in the nation for pediatric HIV/AIDS clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health. This means that children and their families benefit from the newest and most advanced medications to battle HIV/AIDS. The Center is the lead agency in Broward County for the federally-funded Ryan White HIV/AIDS program and it serves more than 3,600 children, adolescents and women each year. In 1999, the Center’s Ryan White-funded program was recognized as a national model by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for providing wrap-around case management services for the entire family.

The Center has earned other awards for its innovative and comprehensive approach to serving children with special needs. It was recognized as a Center of Excellence by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, serving as an exemplary model for other programs around the country. Visitors to the Center include former First Lady Barbara Bush, former basketball player Magic Johnson, football player Emmitt Smith, actress Audrey Hepburn, singer k.d. lang, and many others who admire the work of the Center.

Widmayer has also been recognized with many awards for her leadership and unswerving commitment to the health and welfare of children. In October 2007, the Florida Voice on Mental Retardation honored her as an Advocate of Distinction. She was awarded the Publisher’s Community Service Award by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2006. She also received the Safety Net award from the National Association of Public Hospitals. In accepting these awards, Widmayer is quick to credit the staff and volunteers who make the Center’s vision a reality each and every day.

An early riser, Widmayer is usually at the office by 7:30 a.m. She tries to stay away from the office on weekends, but at home she’s usually working on her computer – writing a grant proposal for a new initiative or reviewing a report for one of the Center’s clinical trials.

Widmayer turns to gardening to refresh and rejuvenate herself. “My yard is nearly two acres and I am out there gardening every moment that I can,” she says. “I am also a number one, absolutely, totally committed Florida Marlins baseball fan.”

But her work at the Center remains the focus of her life. She says that the Sisters of Notre Dame and Trinity had a strong influence on her. “The Sisters of Notre Dame taught us, through their example and through their words, that we were privileged to receive an excellent education and that we had an obligation to help other people less fortunate than we were in any way we could then and throughout our lives. While a student at Trinity, I went to St. Vincent’s Orphanage and to D.C. Children’s Village and realized, for the first time, how many children had so little, when I had so much. The Sisters taught me to see and, throughout the rest of my life, I have seen much poverty and suffering among children and among their families, particularly when the children had handicaps or illnesses.”

“The Sisters, particularly Sr. Francis Gormly, my Spanish professor [Sr. Ann Gormly, S.N.D., '45], demonstrated kindness and respect to everyone every day,” she continues. “I always felt important and welcomed by her and by all the Sisters. I have tried always to emulate Sr. Francis and the other Sisters by showing respect and concern to everyone with whom I interact – the staff and our clients, most especially.”

She adds, “I am absolutely convinced that having a liberal arts education has prepared me very well for my work. It is a great gift to be able to communicate with so many people from so many cultures about so many things. I have worked with many individuals whose lives have been so limited because of their concentration in one or another discipline … some who never learned to enjoy reading or any activity outside their field. I hope Trinity always keeps its focus on providing a well-rounded liberal arts education. It seems to me that this may be a formidable task in our society today when everything has to be ‘useful,’ done so fast and the results so immediate.”

She says that being a psychologist “has helped me in two outstanding ways. First, my area of specialization was pediatric psychology so I was able to focus on the impact that various medical problems had on children, particularly infants, and their families. It has always been the mission of the Center to support families with children with perinatal complications, prematurity, etc. The devastation the parents and families experience when their infants and young children are ill is incalculable. I wanted to alleviate some of that pain.”

“Secondly, I think being a psychologist helps a person become more tolerant and understanding of others – less judgmental, perhaps. It is so much easier to interact with others when you accept and care for them the way they are.”

There are certainly challenging moments for Widmayer – a budget crunch or a particularly difficult case. What gets her through those challenges? “I just make a trip to the waiting room. I sit down for a minute and talk with the families. That just turns everything around for me. I say to myself, ‘OK, it’s all worth it.’ I see kids making progress, families making progress, because of what we can provide them. I encourage my staff to do the same.”

As the Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary in May 2008, Widmayer looks to the future for the vibrant place that once fit in a hospital storage closet. She wants to continue to expand services, reach out to more children and families, and improve the health care that her patients receive. But there are challenges ahead. “I am very concerned about Medicaid reform and the serious possibility of cutbacks that would deprive tens of thousands of children of health care,” she says. “Every cerebral palsy child with proper intervention can walk, but if there are cutbacks, that won’t happen. We have demonstrated over and over, a dollar of early intervention now saves $11 later. We must do everything we can for the health and well being of our children.”

This is what Susan Widmayer does best: passionately speaking out for those who do not have a voice, advocating for better health care, seeing a critical need and addressing it. She’s a compassionate entrepreneur and through her work, tens of thousands of children and families are leading healthier lives. The world is a better place because of her.

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