Hitting a Healthy Note

Sydnie Brown 2With a bright smile and bubbly voice, Sydnie Brown has always dreamed of following in the footsteps of her favorite R&B idols and becoming a singing sensation. She sings in church, raps at home and writes her own lyrics. She has star quality, but until recently, she had a hard time letting it shine. 

Last year, at age 11, the Chesapeake preteen began to grow and put on weight. At an age when social and self awareness begin to peak, Sydnie became self-conscious about her changing body. When kids at school teased her, she turned to food for comfort. Extra weight took its toll on Sydnie’s blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) which was over the 85th percentile for girls her age. Overweight, depressed and at risk for long-term health conditions such as diabetes, Sydnie was one of 400 children referred to CHKD’s Healthy You for Life program last year.

As one of the first multidisciplinary pediatric weight management programs in the country, Healthy You for Life (HY4L) has been helping overweight children avoid the medical complications associated with childhood obesity since 2001. Today, HY4L is one of CHKD’s signature programs, offered to mitigate what many experts identify as the top health concern affecting local children. The program’s staff includes a physician, an RN, social workers, dietitians, a parent educator, a community outreach coordinator, a sports medicine physical therapist and an exercise specialist.

Dr. Dominique Williams, medical director of Healthy You for Life, meets with every child during the first clinic visit. “When Sydnie started, she didn’t have a lot of self-assurance. But there was something about her. We could see it – we just hoped that she would see it, too.”

Sydnie’s initial evaluation included assessments of lifestyle behaviors, home and family dynamics, school performance, self-esteem and a  comprehensive review of her medical history. The team identified strategies that could improve Sydnie’s health and began to help her incorporate more physical activity into her routine and modify her eating habits.

“We try not to overwhelm patients with too many changes when we start,” says Jill Layne, a licensed clinical social worker who worked with Sydnie. For instance, instead of completely taking soda out of Sydnie’s diet, they started by having her cut back. On average, HY4L patients work with the team for a year, consistently making small changes that result in big health improvements. “We have evidence that when you give people small, measurable goals, it works,” says Jill.

Support and encouragement are also key components of the program. After their first visit, Dr. Williams wrote Sydnie a little note of encouragement, and from that moment, Sydnie’s inner light started to flicker again. “It’s one thing when your mom says you’re a nice kid,” says Sydnie’s mom, Hope Brown, “but it’s something different when other people confirm it.”

In fact, communication is more than just a nice touch in the HY4L program. Evidence gathered by HY4L staff shows a significant relationship between the number of personal contacts made between staff members and patients and the number of clinic visits a patient completes. The Healthy You team keeps a database of personal contacts, tracking every time staff members reach out to patients through notes, texts, emails or phone calls.

“We can’t physically see every patient each week,” says Dr. Williams, “but the thousands of little contacts that we deliver – in addition to the clinic visits – add up to patients who report some sort of positive behavior change when we do see them in clinic.”

With attention to the unique needs and motivations of each child, HY4L ultimately looks for ways to connect a child’s personal goals and interests with his or her health goals. This encourages kids to make healthy choices even when parents or doctors aren’t involved. Some patients are motivated by the idea of trying out for a sport or by wearing a certain piece of clothing. Sydnie found her connection through music.

“We were trying to think of ways to encourage her to do something that she felt she was good at,” says Dr. Williams, “and we knew that she expressed herself through music, so we asked her to write us a rap about Healthy You.”

She performed it for the staff at her next visit and blew everyone away.

“I could tell they were really proud of me,” says Sydnie. “I was proud of myself. I was so excited, I cried.” Music is not only Sydnie’s creative outlet – it also plays an important part in her new health strategies. She also likes to turn the music up in her room and dance.

“I dance a lot,” she says. “I just move any kind of way. My friends help. One motivates me to exercise. We rap about a lot of stuff. We rhyme back and forth and laugh a ton.”

Overall, Sydnie lost almost 10 pounds while in Healthy You for Life, and her blood pressure and BMI have dropped. At 12 years old, she now has more energy and self-esteem. But more important, HY4L has provided her with healthy habits to last a lifetime, helped reduce her risk of weight-related diseases in the future and reignited that spark within, allowing her renewed spirit to shine through.

“I’m really confident in myself,” she says. “I know who I am and what I have to do to be the best I can be.”

Dr. Williams, a pediatrician, practices with CHKD’s Healthy You for Life program.