The idea that health starts within the foundation of a community is central to our social determinants of health initiatives at Partners HealthCare. And that essential drive toward a level playing field, so that everyone has an opportunity for health and wellbeing, was central to the equal rights messages espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That connection was the topic of Partners’ recent celebration of the life of Dr. King, which featured Edward M. Barksdale, Jr., MD, Surgeon-in-Chief at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, as the keynote speaker.

Dr. Barksdale has spent the last several decades focused on the health of communities—in particular, the impact of toxic stress, youth violence, and trauma on children’s health. Like others in health care, including Partners, Dr. Barksdale has become increasingly focused on the social determinants of health and how critical it is for community leaders and health systems to address these underlying factors that impact community wellbeing.

Dr. Barksdale spoke about his efforts to address violence in and around Cleveland, which began with his realization that so many young children were dying from violence without public outrage. An early experience losing a young patient to violence—and that image of a hysterical mother and a child he could not save—led him to work to where he “works now on the precipice of hope, to improve [life] for the children.” As he and community leaders collaborated on initiatives to reduce youth and gang violence, Dr. Barksdale realized that their efforts were unsustainable if generational and epigenetic transmission of trauma weren’t examined. Their work had to mitigate both “horizontal and vertical trauma” for Cleveland’s community members, “patients who needed healing, because they were hurting, and living in fear.”

From left to right: David F. Torchiana, MD, Partners HealthCare President and CEO; Edward M. Barksdale, Jr., MD, Surgeon-in-Chief at UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and Professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio; Dani Monroe, Partners HealthCare Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer; H. Timothy Ewing, PhD, Vice President of Employee Diversity, Inclusion and Experience at Brigham Health, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Luncheon emcee

Dr. Barksdale encouraged community leaders to view health not as an absence of disease, but a presence of wellness and healing among community “patients.” He explained the concept of anti-fragility in communities, and his Antifragility Initiative in Cleveland, based on the Japanese custom of kintsugi, where broken pottery is made stronger by repairing it with liquid gold. He theorizes that by making “broken kids stronger in those broken places,” communities can repair cracks where toxic stress, violence, and disparity have crept in—and ultimately improve health outcomes for all.

Dr. Barksdale’s words about Dr. King’s foot soldiers, who fought for identity and the principles of hope, serve as a call-to-action—to improve health justice for all, through continued efforts throughout our communities. On this day of remembrance, we remain committed to these vital initiatives in the communities we serve.

Photo credit: Christopher Huang Photography