Health & Fitness

Safeguarding Your Children’s Health

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Parents have plenty to worry about — sickness, injuries, disease — but thankfully our region’s health systems are an ever-present partner in keeping our youngsters healthy. Discover a few ways our local hospitals are staying engaged.

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It’s a scary world out there for parents. They face many difficult challenges, decisions and threats to their children’s health and well-being. Thankfully, proactive parents have a wealth of tools available to help their children through both day-to-day and unexpected issues that arise. And, modern parents are armed with new insights and breakthrough technologies that didn’t exist when they were children.

Get Your Checkups & Shots

Dr. Kristina Mitton, a pediatrician at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, addresses many a parent’s question. She not only sees children for regular checkups, but also supports those undergoing diagnostic or medical treatments. As a parent herself, Mitton is sensitive to the fears that other parents face.

“We recently finished the school-exam season,” says Mitton. “One of the issues I address on a regular basis is ensuring children are up-to-date on their vaccinations. There were some cases of measles in the area last year, and it has become even more evident that consistent vaccination coverage is vital.”

Mitton briefs parents on the benefits and risks of childhood vaccinations. It’s important for parents to base their decisions on the most current and accurate information available, she says.

“There are many diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, that we cannot prevent,” she says. “I believe it’s wise to prevent what we can.”

One of the latest school-required vaccines is aimed at preventing meningitis.

“Meningitis is an infection of the brain and nervous system,” says Mitton. “It’s contagious and extremely dangerous. Vaccination is an essential protection for high school students, and even more so for college students, who not only attend classes but also live together in close quarters.”

Some parents resist the idea of vaccinations, but Mitton believes parents should do everything they can to protect their children, especially when the benefits far outweigh potential risks. For example, Mitton points to the annual flu shot vaccine.

“Some parents are worried that their children will get sick from the shot,” says Mitton. “And they may, but it is a day or two of feeling mildly sick, versus five or six days of being very sick and possibly needing hospitalization.”
Parents often have questions about asthma and allergies. Asthma, in particular, can be exacerbated by allergies, sometimes cyclically.

“Asthma can be triggered by allergies, cold weather, upper respiratory infections and abrupt weather changes,” says Mitton. “Every patient reacts differently, and we work closely with parents to assess and treat each one appropriately. This often means going step by step through different medication regimens to discover which is the most effective. Fortunately, specialists have developed guidelines so we can help patients directly and often avoid the need for referrals.”

No matter the age of the child, parents should feel comfortable bringing all of their questions.

“From breastfeeding to potty training, I want parents to feel comfortable asking any questions when it comes to the well-being of their child,” says Mitton. “As a pediatrician and as a parent, I have tremendous respect for conscientious parents whose love for their children is reflected in constant vigilance.”

Protecting Active Kids

Preventive medicine is advancing rapidly. One place it’s making a big impact is youth sports, where the possibility of concussions, heart troubles or other injuries can never truly be eliminated. New prescreening tests are helping parents and physicians to be better prepared.

At Centegra Hospital-McHenry, prescreenings of student athletes can help to establish a baseline of normal brain function – essential data used to diagnose and appropriately treat a head injury.

“Centegra began offering a concussion prescreening program about three years ago,” says Celine Pope, wellness manager. “We go out into the community’s schools and sports programs not only to create a baseline for children involved in sports, especially football, but also to provide a continuum of care if and when they are concussed.”

Matt Mariani, Centegra sports care coordinator, helps to oversee the program.

“We prescreen students from ages 10 through 18,” he says. “The computer software program measures mental activity and reactions. It takes about 30 minutes, after which the test is evaluated by a nurse practitioner to determine if the score is valid.”

Children who have concussions often try to fake the follow-up screening test results, says Mariani, because they’re eager to return to the playing field. Data from computerized screenings help to remove any potential bias.

“When we measure post-trauma screenings against the child’s baseline, we know exactly how parents, athletic trainers, coaches and neurological specialists should respond, as well as how long the child really needs to fully recover,” Mariani says. “Everything has to be totally aligned before the child is permitted to return to play.”

Mariani says parents and coaches today are much more aware of the dangers a concussion poses, and can more quickly recognize the symptoms and prevent repeat injuries.

“Secondary concussions that can happen when the child returns to his or her sport too soon can be significantly more damaging,” says Mariani. “Their brains are not fully healed. If the original concussion has not healed, a second impact is much worse. It’s vital to make certain the athlete fully recovers with adequate rest and treatment.”

After the post-concussion testing, parents should work closely with their primary pediatricians to develop a return-to-play plan. Together, they make sure the child takes the injury seriously and does what’s needed to heal completely.
This summer, the State of Illinois mandated that all middle schools and high schools provide head injury protocols and related educational materials for students athletes, coaches and parents. Centegra’s system of prescreening and training was already in place before the mandate.

“Community screening is part of a larger Centegra initiative to improve health care,” Pope says. “We also have developed an EKG cardiac screening program for students age 13 and older.”

The cardiac screening program costs just $5 for high school students and is made possible in part by a donation from medical equipment manufacturer Sage Products LLC, in Cary, to the Centegra Health System Foundation.

“A technician performs the test, and if any abnormality is noticed, an ultrasound is done at the same time,” Pope says. “Last year, we screened about 250 students and found abnormalities in nearly 40 of them that led to echocardiograms at the screenings. Of those students, five needed further follow-up care with pediatric cardiologists. If a child has an abnormal screening result, we notify the parents and urge them to take their child to his or her doctor.”

One of the abnormalities cardiac screening can reveal is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). According to the Mayo Clinic, HCM is a gene mutation that causes the heart muscle to grow unusually thick and in an abnormal arrangement. The thickened heart muscle reduces the space for blood to flow, thus causing blood to rush through the heart valves more quickly and forcefully, and preventing the valves from closing properly. As a result, blood can leak backward and make the condition worse.

People with HCM have an increased risk of sudden cardiac death, although such deaths are rare, according to Mayo, and happen only in about 1 percent of HCM patients each year. HCM can cause heart-related sudden death in people of all ages, but people younger than 30 are most at risk.

When a child suddenly drops on the court or playing field, HCM may be the reason. If the child survives the initial attack, he or she can be treated with medications to regulate the arrhythmia or atrial fibrillation that results from the condition. In other cases, ablation or open-heart surgery may be performed to help correct the problem. At Centegra, preventing cardiac emergencies and head trauma is a driving force for prescreenings.

“The first year, we screened 2,000 students,” says Mariani, of the concussion evaluation. “The second year, it doubled to 4,000, and this year, so far, we have screened 6,000. Participation has tripled since we first started it. This is happening not only because of increased interest but also because our program goes so smoothly.”

Teaching Proper Diabetes Management

Nobody likes to think about children suffering a serious disease, but when they are diagnosed with something like childhood diabetes, it’s important that parents learn as much as possible about treatment to help their children live normal, active lives.

Sue Peterson, a registered nurse and diabetes educator at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital in Elgin, sees newly diagnosed diabetes patients who are referred from their primary physicians.

“It’s more common for me to work with adults, but when a child comes in with his or her parents, it’s usually after the parents have suspected something was wrong and consulted the family pediatrician,” Peterson says. “They may have noticed that the child is more thirsty, urinates more frequently, is tired and has blurred vision, or has noticeably lost weight.”

About 5 to 10 percent of patients diagnosed with the disease have Type 1 diabetes, Peterson says. It’s usually diagnosed in children and young adults. Type 2 is more common in adults, but can occur in children as well.

“One of the first questions almost every person with diabetes asks me is whether Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes is worse,” she says. “Some think that, because you take insulin, your diabetes is worse. However, children and adults learn to adapt regardless of which type they have. Both types can be managed successfully when the patient learns how to balance medications, healthy eating and exercise. I’d say nine out of 10 admit it’s not as bad as they expected. After a week or two, they focus more on the risks and benefits.”

Peterson knows firsthand what it’s like to be a young person diagnosed with diabetes. She’s successfully managed the disease herself for nearly 50 years.

“I can remember as a child crying every time I got an insulin shot,” she says. “That stage soon passed because you not only get used to it, you understand that you need to do it. Back then, diabetes education was not what it is today. Now we invite patients to come in and learn, and we follow guidelines from the American Diabetes Association. Although I work with more adults, when I do work with children, they also are very attentive to what they need to know and do.”
Peterson encourages parents to avoid overprotecting their children.

“We want to achieve a happy balance between keeping children close and giving them space,” she says. “Growing up, I attended summer camps for children and teens with diabetes. What really helps a child at camp is when they are awarded a purple heart for giving their own injection. When I counsel children, I’m a stickler for helping kids to feel a sense of control. I want them to feel good about themselves.”

There’s little difference in lifespan between people with well-controlled diabetes and those without diabetes, but Peterson says that genetic tendencies, poor diet and obesity are the main culprits of Type 2 diabetes. Asians, Hispanics and blacks have a greater risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the body fights against the insulin-producing cells of its own pancreas. Common triggers include genetics and exposure to certain viruses.

“After diagnosis, the key to living a long and healthy life, no matter the type of diabetes, is good nutrition, appropriate medications and careful blood glucose management,” Peterson says. “I like a quotation from Dr. William Polonsky, director of the Behavioral Diabetes Institute, who says, ‘Well-controlled diabetes is the leading cause of nothing.’”

Modern technology is helping people with diabetes to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. Soon, patients who wear insulin pumps will be able to download the glucose data from their pump to their smartphone, Peterson says. This will promote greater self-awareness and thus better diabetes management. Insulin pump companies are also working on implantable pumps and glucose sensors.

“Eventually, the hope is that the implantable sensor will communicate with the implantable insulin pump and tell the pump how much insulin to deliver,” Peterson says. “This will be an artificial pancreas.”

Remain Vigilant

Parenthood has never been easy, but with the help of caring and knowledgeable medical specialists, today’s parents are well-equippeded to make thoughtful decisions about their children’s health.

A focus on preventing illness through healthy habits, immunizations and prescreenings marks a new approach to setting children on the path to a healthy adult life. Parents and physicians are important partners in rearing healthy children.

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