An earache led to a fortuitous reunion between a Portland, Oregon, teen, his mother, and the Kaiser Permanente doctor who once cared for him as a newborn in crisis.
“You probably see a million people, and I don’t know if you remember us, but you saved my child’s life.”
Those were the words Amber Aldridge said to the doctor who stepped in the room to see her 14-year-old son, Alex, for an appointment in December 2020.
Lisa Denike, MD, regional chief of pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente of the Northwest, isn’t Alex’s regular pediatrician, but on this day, she was filling in for her. And as it turned out, she had filled in for Alex’s regular doctor once before — and at a pivotal point in his life she’d gotten him the care he urgently needed to survive.
When Alex was just 2 weeks old, Aldridge brought him in for a routine infant checkup. He had cried nonstop since birth, and he had shown some mild cold symptoms. Aldridge and her husband figured the crying was typical for a newborn and hoped the cold was nothing serious. When Dr. Denike listened to his lungs, however, she heard a worrying crackling sound and ordered lab tests and X-rays, ultimately deciding to send him to the hospital by ambulance.
Test results showed Alex had respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a common virus that affects many children under the age of 2. For adults, RSV exhibits itself as a bad cold. But for babies, it can be life-threatening because it can make it difficult for them to breathe and get sufficient oxygen.
In Alex’s case, it meant spending 5 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, where nurses could give him oxygen and regularly clear his airways with suction, helping him breathe better so he would eat. He eventually recovered and, despite having asthma, grew up a relatively healthy kid, active with playing basketball, riding his bike, and hoping to play football when he starts high school in the fall.
Over the years, Alex typically saw a different doctor at Kaiser Permanente, one who’d been his father’s family physician for decades. When that doctor retired, he established a relationship with a pediatrician. Still, when Aldridge took Alex to his appointments at Kaiser Permanente offices, she would point out Dr. Denike’s picture in the lobby and tell him, “This is the doctor who saved you.”
“I wanted him to know that he was going somewhere where somebody genuinely cared about him,” she says.
When Alex developed an earache in December 2020, his regular doctor wasn’t available. But the doctor who filled in turned out to be a familiar face — Dr. Denike.
“When I saw her, I had tears streaming down my face,” says Aldridge. “I couldn’t contain myself, I was so happy to see her.”
For Aldridge, it was a total surprise. But this is just the sort of synchronicity Kaiser Permanente fosters with initiatives like Thriving Families, a comprehensive pediatrics program designed to provide cohesive care for kids from birth through the teenage years.
“We’ve developed standardized care and information, and facilitate collaboration between pediatrics, ob-gyn, and family medicine to try to make the patient experience consistent across those departments and to have robust communication between those departments,” said Dr. Denike. “We also invite our members to join work groups to help design an experience that meets their needs.”
In addition, pediatricians at Kaiser Permanente of the Northwest work in small teams, so even if someone isn’t their regular patient, it’s likely that they fill in to see them regularly.
For Kaiser Permanente, the program is a way to offer an exceptional patient experience. For Aldridge, Alex, and Dr. Denike, it created the chance to have a happy reunion. And after all these years, Aldridge was thrilled to be able to tell Dr. Denike in person how much she meant to her family.
“It was amazing to me,” said Dr. Denike. “In our day-to-day work, it’s easy to forget the impact you have on kids and their families.”
To learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s maternity and pediatrics programs, visit kp.org/maternity/nw.