Erica Gibson, MD, is an adolescent medicine physician and Medical Director of School-Based Health at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital.
I taught at a boarding school for high-risk kids. I’ll never forget having a 15-year-old come to me and tell me she was pregnant and didn’t know what to do. We were in a small county in rural North Carolina. There was one pediatrician in town. As you can imagine, she was very scared, and certainly not ready to become a mother. It took a lot of work to get her appropriate confidential care: we had to negotiate a very difficult system. Finally, we made it happen, and she was able to get an abortion—and continue her studies. Now, being able to help teens like her, and train doctors to do the same, is incredible. I love the work I do, and I love the opportunity PRCH gives me to train others.
In the last year, as part of PRCH’s Adolescent Reproductive Health Education Project (ARHEP), I gave talks on adolescent sexuality, pregnancy, contraception, and options counseling to two very different audiences. The first was at a residency training program in Hoboken, New Jersey. The second was at the hospital on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. What amazed me was how similar the issues facing these providers were. The fact is that most people—including parents, teachers, adolescents, and healthcare providers—are uncomfortable talking about sexuality, especially regarding teens. But it is essential for people taking care of adolescents to be able to talk about sex and reproductive health with them. The ARHEP curriculum is an amazing tool not only because it provides the latest information, but also because it gives providers guidance in how to address these issues in ways that make teens comfortable.
On the Hopi reservation, they have a giant medical center, and a wide variety of people came to the talk, from front desk attendants to physicians to medical directors. The presentation generated a lot of conversation—not just in the medical center, but across the reservation. The high school has since created a teen health curriculum and is expanding it to include HIV awareness, sexuality—the whole range of issues affecting teens’ reproductive health. And it’s all because of ARHEP.
There’s a universal need for this kind of education. No matter where you are growing up, maturing into an adolescent body, you are going through the same things. Most teens can’t figure it all out by themselves, and we’re not living in an era where schools or even parents can be relied upon to help them. As healthcare professionals, we have a unique opportunity to talk to teens confidentially about issues of central importance to their lives, and ARHEP gives us the tools to do that. I know how much easier it would have been for me—and, more important, for that 15-year-old—if I’d been exposed to something like the ARHEP training, and I know how much healthcare providers appreciate and value the work PRCH does.