Katherine Rivera-Spoljaric, MD
Love of teaching translates to the clinic and beyond for pediatrician
For as long as she can remember, Katherine Rivera-Spoljaric, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, has wanted to teach. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she loved English, literature and reading. She thought she would become a preschool teacher. But at school she developed a passion for microbiology, particularly the study of infectious diseases. So instead of teaching, she decided to study medicine.
While attending medical school in Puerto Rico, Rivera-Spoljaric had to choose between pediatrics and internal medicine as her main specialty. “Pediatrics just made me happy,” she says. She really enjoyed working with children, especially since it allowed for “play time” — something she would have had if she had become a preschool teacher. Also, many of her young patients suffered from infectious diseases including respiratory diseases, which fascinated her.
Lessons from asthma
The patients Rivera-Spoljaric was most drawn to were those children with asthma, something she was quite familiar with. “I could identify with the patients who had respiratory diseases, partly because I have asthma,” she says. “So it was something I understood. I understood how they felt to be short of breath and to have respiratory symptoms.”
Over time, Rivera-Spoljaric found she was specifically choosing to treat asthma patients, when she could. That’s when she knew that she wanted to focus on pulmonary medicine. Upon completion of her residency in pediatrics at Miami Children’s Hospital, she chose to pursue a pulmonology fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine. The research environment here appealed to Rivera-Spoljaric and she had heard that the pulmonary program was outstanding. In 2007 she received a faculty appointment in the division of pediatric allergy, immunology and pulmonary medicine and was awarded a faculty diversity scholarship, which helped subsidize her salary, equipment for the lab and the salaries of students to help with her research.
Due to the nature of pulmonary diseases, many of the children Rivera-Spoljaric treats are chronically ill. Seeing these children so often allows her to develop close relationships with them. In some cases, a child may suffer some sort of cognitive impairment that hinders their communication skills. Rivera-Spoljaric tends to feel a personal responsibility toward these children to make sure they get the care and treatment they need. “I want them to have a voice,” she says, even if they can’t physically speak.
Rivera-Spoljaric also sees many children who depend on technology such as ventilators, inhalers and other devices to breathe or administer drugs to the lungs. Learning how to use and troubleshoot all this equipment requires a great deal of education. “My primary role when seeing patients is diagnosing the problem and coming up with the treatment or recommendations,” says Rivera-Spoljaric. “Embedded in that is teaching and explaining the course of treatment to the parents and how to use all the equipment that we have.” This led her to become the medical director of the Multidisciplinary Technology Dependent Child Clinic at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, a role that allowed her to help her patients and their caregivers successfully transition from the hospital to the home.
When seeing new patients, Rivera-Spoljaric would frequently find that parents were reluctant to give their children any kind of medication or treatment. “No parent wants their child to be on too many medications,” says Rivera-Spoljaric. She understands this all too well, with a son who also suffers from asthma. This prompted her to research parents’ behavior when dealing with asthmatic children, particularly when they are first diagnosed. She begins by trying to understand parents’ concerns and determine the barriers to treatment. She then works to demonstrate the benefits of early treatment on a child’s overall health. “I’ve learned that I have to be a good teacher in order for people to feel comfortable doing what we’re recommending,” she says.
Along with teaching parents about treating their children, Rivera-Spoljaric assists and mentors female junior faculty and trainees as treasurer and a board member on Washington University School of Medicine’s Academic Women’s Network. A common theme at their meetings is balancing life at work and at home. As a mother of three, Rivera-Spoljaric admits it can be a challenge maintaining her busy work schedule with a thriving family at home. One way she’s done this is to keep work at work and to be more present at home. “The one thing I’ve figured out is that when I’m at home, I’m a mom and when I’m at work, I need to work.” She also makes sure to find time for herself and her hobbies, which include reading, painting and other art projects.
When she first came to St. Louis, Rivera-Spoljaric was self-conscious about standing out as one of the few Hispanic doctors at the university. She was also worried about communicating effectively with her Spanish accent and whether she sounded as educated as her peers. But over time, she grew more confident. She now believes living in a place with fewer Hispanic people has made her stronger. “Being here in St. Louis has allowed me to see how unique I am,” she says. “Being in this environment has made me want to improve myself.”
It has also made her want to help those around her. In addition to her involvement with the Academic Women’s Network, she helps select and mentor medical students through the American Medical Women’s Association and the Office of Diversity Programs (ODP). She also participates in a yearly job fair held by the ODP that brings in high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to learn about the medical school. She says seeing people succeed makes her feel empowered and she hopes she can do the same for those in similar situations as hers: “I am always interested in learning what I can to do to give back so that I can be a role-model for others from diverse backgrounds.”