Dr. Nicole Lang ’89: A Passion for Patient Care and Advocacy
by Ann Pauley
When families walk into Washington Pediatric Associates, the practice established by Dr. Nicole Lang ’89, they are greeted by a cheerful staff, colorful murals and a wide array of children’s books. The practice’s logo features children standing on a book, symbolizing the emphasis placed on books and learning; a rainbow represents the multicultural patient population the staff serves; and the children reaching for the stars, says Lang, “reflects our desire for all children to reach their fullest potential.”
Although Lang was part of an established pediatrics practice in 2002, she took the bold step of creating her own practice so that she could deliver health care shaped by her own values. “I envisioned a different approach to providing patient care,” she says. “I wanted to have a more holistic, family-centered approach – which entailed having multiple resources under one roof. To do this, I knew I had to launch Washington Pediatric Associates.”
Today, her practice includes a team of 12 professionals who work collaboratively, including physicians, a nurse practitioner, a lactation consultant, a nutrition counselor and an early childhood educator; in the near future she will add a child and adolescent psychiatrist to the team. “We all work together, with the families, to ensure that the children are getting the best health care, but are also progressing developmentally and cognitively,” says Lang. “We carefully look at the whole family and evaluate what resources are required to address our patients’ needs.”
Lang, who grew up in Atlanta, comes from a family that truly values education and a lifelong love of learning. “I am the third generation in my family to graduate from college, though I am the first to go to medical school.” She chose Trinity because, “I wanted to continue my education in a small environment for women that was nurturing, supportive and faith-based. I also love the location, diversity and history of Washington, D.C. In addition, the rigors of the biochemistry major provided a very solid foundation for medical school.”
She earned her medical degree from George Washington University, where she engaged in numerous community service opportunities. She worked in medical clinics in West Africa, which she describes as “an amazing experience – it’s incredible what people can do with few resources.” On her very first day, she delivered a baby. “In that particular African culture, the woman that delivers a baby is deemed to also be that baby’s mother. It was a very emotional experience for me.” She notes that in many ways, the clinical skills of the medical staff there were quite advanced in spite of limited technological resources. “I learned so much about listening to patients and staying in tune with patients and relying on excellent clinical skills, instead of relying on lab reports, which just weren’t available to the doctors there.”
As a medical student, she spent a summer in a clinic on the Crow Indian Reservation; she was adopted into the tribe and the experiences she had were very meaningful to her both personally and professionally. For her medical outreach in West Africa, on the reservation, and in rural South Carolina, George Washington University awarded her the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medal for Outstanding Service in Human Rights.
After her pediatric residency at Emory University, Lang returned to George Washington to join a clinical practice and to serve as assistant professor of pediatric and adolescent medicine (a position she continues to hold) and as assistant dean of student and curricular affairs.
She enjoyed teaching and found it rewarding to be a part of the students’ evolution from idealistic first-year medical students to experienced clinicians. “I was able to teach them about both the art and science of medicine,” recalls Lang. “I emphasized cross-cultural medicine and the impact of a person’s culture and community support system. I also taught students about spirituality and medicine and how a person’s belief system and faith play an important role in the healing process.”
While working at George Washington, she met the renowned pediatrician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, one of her most influential mentors. Through years of research, he developed the Touchpoints Approach, which is a practical method for enhancing the competence of parents and building strong family-child relationships from before birth through the earliest years, laying the vital foundation for children’s healthy development.
“Touchpoints has truly transformed the way in which I practice pediatric medicine,” says Lang. “This model of preventive care that focuses on the positive relationships between doctors and providers, parents and caregivers, and the community at large has a common goal of optimal child development and healthy functional families.” A central theme of Touchpoints is that “every parent is an expert in his or her child, and we are here to provide the resources they need at each step in the child’s development,” notes Lang. For many years, she has led workshops across the country for doctors and other health professionals on the Touchpoints Approach.
Venturing on Her Own
After several years of teaching and working in a clinical practice, Lang ventured on her own to establish Washington Pediatric Associates. While her primary focus is delivering medical care to her patients, she is also running a business – which is a daily juggling act. “I do have to balance these two very different roles,” says Lang, “and each one is distinct and requires a very different skill set. As a doctor, I have to continuously think about the medical, mental and emotional well-being of my patients. Conversely, as a businesswoman, I have to think about the financial well-being of the business. The key for me has been to work with a dependable and reliable staff – and, as needed, to utilize outside advisors.” Since 2002, her practice has grown to more than 5,000 patients, and she has tripled her office space to include eight exam rooms.
As she has built her practice, she has been committed to serving a diverse range of patients. “We are very proud of the multicultural mix of our patients – on any given day, our office looks like a little United Nations,” says Lang. “The patients that we have at Washington Pediatric Associates come from various socio-economic backgrounds. For example, our practice has patients from lower-income communities, as well as upper-income communities. Our patient families include members of Congress, World Bank officials, business leaders and every day people.” The multicultural emphasis is seen in the exam rooms, which are decorated with the flags and symbols of countries and cultures around the world.
All of her patients, and their families, are treated with respect and receive the very best health care. “My fundamental operating philosophy is to treat every patient like he or she were my own child,” says Lang. “We provide high-quality care to everyone.”
Lang sees patients from newborns to teenagers. She confides that she loves “the newborns and their new parents – they are so open to learning and it is rewarding to help them along the path.” She notes that “teenagers can be challenging, but it so important to provide support to them and help them make smart, healthy choices.” She adds, “Every age is exciting – it is a phenomenal experience to see these children grow and develop.”
Among the key health issues she sees in her practice are obesity and the illnesses and conditions that obesity can cause. “I am so pleased to see First Lady Michelle Obama putting a priority on reducing childhood obesity.” Lang has a nutritional counselor on her staff who works with patients and their families to guide them in preparing healthy meals at home.
Lang also focuses on asthma and allergies, emphasizing preventive measures, helping parents recognize signs and symptoms, and providing clear guidelines on how to manage acute exacerbations. “We’ve seen fewer hospital admissions as a result,” says Lang.
Adding an early childhood educator to her staff is unique, but for Lang, it is essential. “She provides workshops and one-on-one sessions for parents to support them through challenging behavioral issues. All of the research today confirms the work of Dr. Brazelton, who found that the connection between parent and child has a positive impact on brain development,” notes Lang.
Lang’s practice gives free books to children ages 6 months to 5 years as part of Reach Out and Read (ROAR), a national nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms across the country by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud.
Lang is on the board of ROAR of Metro D.C. and she believes that its mission is vital. “ROAR is a program in which doctors work closely with parents to support children’s language and literacy development,” says Lang. “Research has shown that reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for literacy development and eventual reading success. The brain development of children is augmented when parents and caregivers read to them. The development of literacy skills is critically linked to a child’s environmental stimulation with books and reading. At Washington Pediatrics, we give out free, age-appropriate books to patients; we provide educational advice to parents; and we have volunteers reading aloud to children in our waiting room.”
A Passion for Advocacy
Lang’s volunteer work for ROAR is just one of many advocacy hats she wears, at both the local and national level. As a medical school professor, she stresses to students the importance of “using your medical degree to venture outside the traditional role of doctor to advocacy and public policy.” It’s advice she puts into practice every day. “I am very passionate about child advocacy,” she says. “As medical professionals, there are so many different ways that we can advocate for child welfare.”
Lang is chair of the board of Every Child Matters Education Fund, a national nonprofit, non-partisan organization working to make investments in children a national political priority. “We aim to increase the visibility of children and youth issues, such as health care, early care and learning, after-school programs, and child abuse and neglect prevention programs,” explains Lang.
Every Child Matters recently participated in a press conference convened by more than 50 children’s organizations, calling attention to the ways in which the proposed cuts in the federal budget would be detrimental to the basic needs of children. “Our nation’s children need a voice,” says Lang. “Not investing in children early on, before kindergarten, will have a detrimental impact on our country as a whole. Cuts to Head Start, WIC [Women, Infants and Children], Reach Out and Read, and other federally-supported programs will have an adverse impact on our most vulnerable population – our children.”
In the 1990s, Lang was featured in a national public service advertising campaign sponsored by the Ad Council and the Women’s College Coalition, of which Trinity is a member. Featuring Lang as a young girl, the ad proclaimed, “She’s a doctor today because her role models weren’t models.” The ad, with the tag line, “Expect the best from a girl, that’s what you’ll get,” ran in newspapers and magazines across the country.
In 2005, she spearheaded an international partnership between George Washington Medical School and Orotta Medical School in Eritrea, East Africa, where her husband, Therman “Tab” Baker, was born. The focus of the project is on graduate medical education and creating residency programs in several specialties with an initial focus on pediatrics and surgery. “The medical school in Eritrea had recently opened. Through the partnership between GW, Orotta and Physicians for Peace, we were able to develop residency programs in pediatrics, surgery, OB/GYN and internal medicine for the recent graduates. We wanted to encourage these doctors to practice medicine in Eritrea where there is such a shortage of physicians for the population. I plan on returning to Eritrea in the near future to lecture on pediatric medicine to the students and residents. I look forward to reconnecting to the medical community in Eritrea and visiting my husband’s family.”
Lang serves on the Women’s Advisory Board of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital because she believes that “the Girls Scouts is a very positive organization for girls.” She notes that, “It provides leadership skills, outdoor adventure experiences, a health and fitness focus and community service projects. It promotes positive self-esteem and values friends and family.” In spite of her busy schedule, she finds time to be a leader for her daughter’s troop. “Being involved in my daughter’s life and surrounding her with positive role models is critical,” says Lang. “Having Nia involved in service learning experiences is very important to me. Also, I want her to understand the important correlation between learning a new skill, team work and having the sense of accomplishment when she earns a badge.”
Lang currently serves on the Trinity Board of Trustees, in keeping with her commitment to give back. “I am proud to be a trustee because Trinity laid the foundation for me to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor,” says Lang. “Trinity had a profound impact on my personal, professional and spiritual development. I am grateful to Trinity and committed to ensuring the success of Trinity students today. It is my privilege and responsibility to give back to the school that means so much to me.” This summer, Lang will become vice chair of the Trinity Board of Trustees.
Most recently, Lang became the chair of the board of a new organization, Lollipop Kids Foundation, which provides hope and support to children with disabilities and their families. “Too often, parents raising these children feel isolated socially and are burdened financially, emotionally and physically,” notes Lang. “Lollipop Kids exists to combat social stigmas, ease the financial burden, offer emotional support and provide respite care so that every child with a disability has access to a hope and a future. To date, we have donated more than $200,000 in durable medical equipment, provided support groups and hosted outings for children with disabilities.”
Guided by Faith
Faith and spirituality are important dimensions of Lang’s life and guide both her clinical practice with patients and her advocacy work. “My belief system sustains me, keeps me grounded and helps me cope in stressful times. Being a physician is my calling and I thank God for this blessing. It is God working through me to help others heal. It is so important to be grounded and have a sense of connectedness to a higher power.”
Finding quiet time for mediation and prayer is an important way for Lang to find balance in her very busy life. She does yoga, exercises and spends time with her family and friends. Last fall, she organized a mother-daughter retreat for her friends and her daughter’s friends. “We focused on the theme of thanksgiving, and everyone kept a gratitude journal. We emphasized the importance of balancing physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health. We did yoga, we worked on art projects and we talked about positive body images and making smart, healthy choices. The girls really liked it and it re-charged everyone’s batteries. The next one will be on Mother’s Day and will involve multi-generations – grandmothers, mothers and daughters.”
For Lang, focusing on the next generation is part of her passion. For young women considering becoming a doctor, she advises, “Absolutely pursue your dreams of becoming a physician! We need more female physicians in this world. It is hard work but worth every minute. When it seems hard, remember, God won’t give you more than you can handle. Being a doctor is extremely rewarding and it is a true privilege to provide a healing service to another human being.”