Taking care of caregivers

With help from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Carolina is creating a better work-life balance for physician scientists through the Caregivers at Carolina program.

Taking care of caregivers click to enlarge UNC psychiatrist Leeza Park is one of the first recipients of a caregiver grant administered by the University and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to provide stronger institutional support and supplemental funds to early career physician sc

Early career physician scientists struggle to find time to see patients, write research grants and still be part of the family. They are at-risk for burnout and many will leave the profession before becoming tenured.

Sylvia Becker-Dreps is one. The UNC epidemiologist practices nearby in Prospect Hill, North Carolina, but every few months, she travels to Leon, Nicaragua, to research childhood pneumonia, diarrhea and Zika infection.

At the same time, she  juggles the schedules of three children, one of whom has a rare coordination disorder. So between her research travel and grants and her  clinical work, Becker-Dreps traverses the Triangle to take her daughter to her appointments. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the waiting room during a therapy session trying to get a grant written,” Becker-Dreps said. “But it’s not the best way to do things. It’s better to have a block of time to really focus on writing a great grant.”

When UNC psychiatrist Leeza Park is not seeing patients, she’s researching how parents with advanced cancer make decisions about treatment. But when she delivered her son 12 weeks early, Park took leave for six months to care for her premature infant and her own health complications.

Now he’s 18 months old and has two to five doctor’s appointments each week. “I think to be a really good scientist you really have to throw yourself into it, which most of us want to do,” Park said. “But at the same time, I’m very devoted to being a good doctor to my patients and mother to my two small children. That’s the difficult part — the balancing act.”

Caregivers at Carolina

Becker-Dreps and Park are two of the first recipients of a caregiver grant administered by the University and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to provide stronger institutional support and supplemental funds to early career physician scientists. The foundation awarded $5.4 million to 10 schools over the course of five years

Carolina received $540,000 to develop a program led by UNC psychiatry professor Susan Girdler and Amelia Drake, director of the UNC Craniofacial Center. “The risk that not only our institution faces, but the risk our nation faces, of losing some of our brightest and best physician scientists is exceedingly high,” Girdler stressed.

Becker-Dreps funded one day of her week for writing grants and collaborating with colleagues. “With my collaborators here at UNC, we have written six grants in the past few months,” she said, “and four of those have been for the National Institutes of Health. Unless you have time to do that, you can’t stay in the research field.” So far, she and her collaborators have received funding from four of those grants and successfully begun a research study on Zika infection in Nicaragua.

Park used her funds to hire a research assistant to help her recruit patients for studies and conduct study activities. “That flexibility has allowed me to be present for more of my son’s healthcare needs and shift some work that normally might happen in the middle of the day to the evening,” Park said. “So far, it’s made a big difference.”

This year, 21 physician scientists from across campus applied for this year’s caregivers grant. All the applicants can take part in Caregivers at Carolina: Support for Physician Scientists, which provides mentoring and networking opportunities. In partnership with the Center for Women’s Health Research, they offer cost-free administrative support services for the 2017 fiscal year.

“It’s not just the science we want to help them achieve,” Drake said. “It is also the human interest part of sharing, perhaps, a babysitter who could take care of a child with special needs or someone with CPR or nurse training that could help. A lot of meetings we’ve had to date have helped us help them share resources in the community.”

A grant for women and men

Matthew Coward loves his job. The UNC urologist specializes in male reproductive medicine and surgery — only 2.4 percent in the United States do so. Most recently, Coward has been working with Paul Dayton from the Department of Biomedical Engineering on a prototype for a scrotal ultrasound machine.

When not collaborating with Dayton, Coward finds solutions for couples struggling with infertility. “But, in truth,” he said, “my real job is at home,” where he has three children under the age of 5. His middle child has CHARGE syndrome — a spontaneous genetic mutation that occurs in one in 10,000 babies. He’s undergone multiple surgeries and breathes through a tracheostomy and eats using a G-tube. He is legally deaf-blind, although he wears prescription glasses that do help him see.

“I’m not his primary caregiver — my wife stays home with the kids, plus we have a nurse in the house 24 hours a day,” he explained. “But we do this as a team. I feel lucky I have the job I do, with healthcare to give him everything he needs.”

Coward received a $1,000 travel award and continues to utilize the benefits of this caregiving community at Carolina — and stresses the need for more men to apply to the program. “There’s a cultural shift that needs to happen in our society,” he said. “We need to begin valuing males as caregivers and women as breadwinners — and the old tradition as well. It goes both ways. I think men applying for this grant could help with that.”

“We don’t want to lose these top-notch scientists simply because it is too hard to keep research going when they’re also a clinician and also facing substantial caregiving demands at home,” Girdler added. “So we’re going to retain them in science — and that’s huge.”

Article by Alyssa LaFaro, Office of Research Communications, originally published in The University Gazette

To read more and see the video story, go to bit.ly/CaregiverGrants.