Russell Sage College Trailblazer
The Best Medicine:
Kathaleen Perkins ’43, M.D.
Kathaleen C. Perkins ’43, M.D. loves a challenge. It’s what attracted her to the medical profession at a time when few women were admitted to medical school. And it’s what attracted her to adolescent medicine, a specialty facing a shortage of practitioners despite a large population of potential patients, according to a series of articles that appeared last spring in the New York Times.
“They’re a challenging group,” said Perkins, a faculty member at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine and founding chief of its Adolescent Medicine section. “They change rapidly and have lots of problems. But sometimes maybe you can change their lives a little.”
More than Growing Pains
Perkins’ work—with adolescents and depression, and adolescents and obesity— may actually save lives.
Her invention, the Perkins Adolescent Risk Screen (PARS), is a series of questions designed to get teenagers talking about health-related issues they may be hesitant to bring up with adults, like body image, sex, substance abuse, and peer pressure. “It has been incredibly satisfying to hear from people all over the United States and foreign countries who have found PARS helpful,” she said. “Being able to use the tool as widely as we have has been exciting.”
Perkins’ interest lately has been in the area of obesity in young people. At WVU, she runs a clinic to prevent the development of type II diabetes, cancer and heart disease— conditions that frequently afflict patients who are also overweight. Her pilot project grew into a statewide program, funded by a grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The goal is to change adolescents’ behavior,” she said, adding that there is an exercise component that is relevant to her education at Russell Sage, where she was a Physical Education major. “My background has been a boost to me in this field. It’s so difficult to get adolescents to lose—or even stop gaining—weight.”
Perkins said one of the most effective interventions in both her clinic and the Cardiac Clinic at WVU with which she partners on projects is the video game “Dance Dance Revolution.” The popular game has a physical component, requiring players to follow dance moves set to music. As a result of WVU’s research, “Dance, Dance Revolution” is now used as part of the fitness program in West Virginia public schools.
“We still need funding to do some things we want to do with the overweight kids,” said Perkins, describing her clinic’s plans to partner with WVU’s Physical Education and Exercise Physiology programs. “It is becoming increasingly common for research to combine forces between departments, as we are doing with Exercise Physiology, Psychology, and Adolescent Medicine.”
Coming of Age
Perkins’ interest in adolescent medicine grew with her practice.
She entered Albany Medical College in 1950—about the same time that J. Roswell Gallagher, recognized as the founder of adolescent medicine, was setting up the first clinic dedicated to adolescents in Boston. “I was interested in adolescent medicine at the time, but after you’ve been through so many years of school, you’ve got to get out and
spread your wings a bit,” she said.
In the 80s she accepted a fellowship in adolescent medicine at the University of Rochester, then continued to see adolescent patients as a college physician at the State University College in Oswego, and later at Cornell University. She came to the academic portion of her career in 1990, when she joined WVU.
“Adolescent medicine seems to be meeting its stride now, as neonatal specialties did 60 years ago,” said Perkins. “People are realizing that adolescents are neither children nor adults. They are a different, needy population.”
And, whether she is proposing a research project or competing for funding, Perkins continues to thrive on the challenges that attracted her to medical school and adolescent medicine. “We can do a lot to change adolescents’ lives,” she said. “It’s important because they’re the people who are going to be leading our society in the years to come, the ones taking care of us. They’re our ‘keepers’”
Of her many awards, including a Teacher of the Year Award in Pediatrics; a Dean’s Award for Excellence; and an American Academy of Pediatrics, West Virginia Chapter Award for Pediatrician of the Year, she said, “Russell Sage graduates people with an interest and skills in leadership. Those accolades are to the credit of my school as well as me.”