Pediatrician's Mission to Save the Children

For his humanitarian efforts in countries like Thailand, Burma and Iraq, pediatrician Robert Clifford, MD, has been awarded a REAL award by Save the Children.

Growing up in a military family, Robert Clifford, MD, relocated often and, as such, rarely saw the same physician twice. He believes that created a fondness within him for visiting the doctor.

“Luckily I wasn’t a very sick child, but I was always fascinated by the doctor’s office and the trappings of the medical community,” recalls Clifford, now a general pediatrician with Coastal Pediatric Associates in Charleston, S.C.

As far back as middle school Clifford found himself gravitating toward the math and science fields. However, he also studied the piano and violin, and thought he might double major in music and biology in college. But he learned that being a music major was incredibly demanding, so swinging both areas of concentration would be difficult. He opted for biology — a wise choice in hindsight.

Turning point

Clifford ended up majoring in biology in college, and it was there that an undergraduate foreign study trip to Kenya turned his world around. The trip was a religion-political science foreign study trip, and it was one that would leave an indelible mark on his life.

During the trip, Clifford had the opportunity to spend the day in a squatter’s settlement clinic outside of Nairobi.

“For several hours I wandered through and stood in the shadows of some amazing health care workers, and some very desperate medical situations in a very, very poor shanty town,” he says. “And I saw some amazing people laboring hard for the sake of others who had zero in the way of resources. I was captivated, quite honestly, and found the whole experience very sobering. But at that point I felt reasonably convinced that I would spend at least some real part of my career working with the at-need population, and probably in a developing country somewhere.”

However, pediatrics always seemed to be in Clifford’s blood. The eldest of three children, he spent much of his adolescence with people younger than himself, and developed a real affection for children. By the end of high school, he knew that whatever career path he took, it would likely involve children at some point.

“I was one of those unique medical students who knew early on that [pediatrics] was what I wanted to do,” Clifford says. “I felt pretty sure pretty early that it was going be pursuing pediatrics that would lead me to medical school. And I probably would not have gone to medical school if I had knowledge that I would end up doing something other than pediatrics.”

Double-edged sword

Since that initial journey as an undergrad, Clifford has regularly led medical teams into Thailand, Burma, China, Jordan and Iraq. He understands the desperate needs in struggling communities around the globe and has treated thousands of children who have little to no access to health care.

He also recognizes the enormous range of emotions that come with the territory.

“With each of these trips there is that challenge to reconcile the sometimes very awful circumstances that individuals, communities and entire populations of people endure with the very real joy and blessing that comes with making a difference in an individual’s life,” Clifford says.

During his first trip as a practicing pediatrician, Clifford spent time in a refugee camp right outside of Burma in Thailand. He recalls that the first 12 hours at the clinic were mentally and emotionally overwhelming because he was acutely aware of the tens of thousands of people who were desperately in need of medical assistance. In fact, his medical team was smuggled into an area so that they could target a specific population of people without alerting the rest of the community that there was a physician available.

“Like so many things in medicine, you have to train your brain to focus on the immediate encounter at hand,” he explains. “And as each of us has learned to do that, I think we’ve been able to extract a lot of joy out of those individual relationships, and those individual successes, and those individual extensions of relief from whatever it is that might be bothering the person.”

For his humanitarian efforts, Clifford was recently honored by Save the Children with a REAL award in the pediatric category. The REAL Awards is a first-of-its-kind global awards program created by Save the Children and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition to develop greater respect and appreciation for health workers and the lifesaving care they provide globally, as well as in the U.S.

“I was overwhelmed to hear that I was nominated, and even more so when I received the award,” Clifford says. “In part because there are so many people who I know and have worked with who have labored so much longer and harder than I have, it’s a fantastic distinction. And I hope that the awareness platform that Save the Children has created opens the door for others to get their feet wet a little bit.”

Building relationships

When talking about recharging his professional and creative battery, Clifford turns his focus back to his medical trips to underserved regions.

“I’ve been reading recently about burnout in medicine, and how discouraged physicians are in the U.S,” he says. “Those polling numbers seem higher than they’ve ever been before. And I can imagine that if I didn’t have this opportunity to realign myself with the importance of what I do, to change my perspective on occasion, that burnout might be very real in my life.”