“Lab coats scare kids,” says Dr. Holly Van de Voort, the Greene County Medical Center’s first dedicated pediatrician, so she doesn’t have one. The medical center’s new pediatrics clinic opened just as health officials at all levels nationwide are trying to combat misinformation about childhood immunizations. “It’s very frustrating that people don’t see the benefits of vaccines,” Van de Voort says. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALDDr. Holly Van de Voort examines an infant patient Monday morning at the Greene County Medical Center. Van de Voort is seeing patients up to age 18. PHOTO COURTESY GREENE COUNTY MEDICAL CENTER

Child’s play

Greene County Medical Center hires its first pediatrician — just as the fight over immunizations heats up
“Through time,” she explained, “you learn tricks. If you can get an 18-month-old through the exam without crying, you’re going to have a successful day.”

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

It would seem that in the 191-year history of the esteemed Medical College of Georgia, no one has ever been taught how to quack like a duck during an exam.

Dr. Holly Van de Voort learned to quack, and also meow, all on her own.

Med school only teaches doctors what to look for in an exam.

“How to interact develops with time,” she explained recently.

The Greene County Medical Center has never had a doctor quite like Van de Voort — but you can also rest easy knowing that no one is going to meow during your upcoming prostate exam.

Van de Voort, 41, works strictly with kids.

Granting a longtime community wish, the medical center recently put out a call for a pediatrician to staff its new pediatrics clinic.

A native of Pella whose family moved to Georgia as a girl, Van de Voort seized her golden opportunity to finally return to the state she considers home, becoming the medical center’s first dedicated pediatrician on April 1.

Her clinic will have a vibe unlike anywhere else in the facility. 

“You don’t have to grow up here,” she said. “You have an excuse to be silly.”

Who else could quack when looking inside the ears of a patient and not be reported to the state medical board?

“You have a duck in your ear!” Van de Voort is fond of saying to the toddlers she examines.

“Just to kind of distract them,” she added.

“Through time,” she explained, “you learn tricks. If you can get an 18-month-old through the exam without crying, you’re going to have a successful day.”

A pediatrician’s ultimate trick isn’t taught in medical school, either.

“A gentle touch is key,” she said.

But as much as a quack behind the ear works wonders, Van de Voort would presumably love to honk like an angry goose at an increasing number of parents.

Her arrival comes just as health officials in Iowa and elsewhere across the nation grapple with the first widespread repercussions of the insurgent anti-vaxx movement.

The nation is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of measles in the nearly 20 years since the virus was vanquished in the United States — 695 cases and counting in 22 states, including Iowa, as of April 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A trend in parents not immunizing their children — due to misinformation about the safety of vaccines — has the potential to rekindle other dangerous childhood diseases, health officials at all levels warn.

“I’m a firm believer in vaccinations,” Van de Voort said. “They’re safe and effective.”

Even still, the World Health Organization recently reported a 300 percent spike in the number of measles cases worldwide compared to the first three months of 2018.

“All we can do is educate and educate and educate,” she said. “If (vaccines) weren’t safe and effective, I wouldn’t do it.”

In March, Facebook took the step of announcing that it will do its part to combat vaccine misinformation by limiting its reach.

Outbreaks begin when an unvaccinated person visits a country with widespread measles transmission and returns home to the United States, putting other unvaccinated people at risk.

Currently in Greene County, immunizations are given by the public health department, but Van de Voort hopes to take over those responsibilities.

Once common, measles are highly contagious — the virus can live in the air for up to two hours. Serious cases can lead to brain damage and even death.

With the measles vaccine, given to kids at 12-15 months of age and again at 4-6 years, cases dropped by more than 99 percent.

“In 2000, we had no measles in the United States,” Van de Voort said. “It’s very frustrating that people don’t see the benefits of vaccines.”

She worries that diseases she’s never seen — or even had to think about — could some day soon walk into her office.

There hasn’t been a new case of polio, for one, in the U.S. since 1979.

Before the introduction of polio vaccines in 1955 and 1963, outbreaks of the virus crippled more than 15,000 children every year in the United States alone.

In her seven years as school nurse at Greene County Elementary School, Mary Pedersen has seen an uptick in kids who aren’t immunized, but she stresses that, overall, the percentage is low.

Children attending public school in Iowa are still required by law to be fully immunized unless parents sign and notarize a medical or religious exemption form.

“I have very few medical exemption forms,” Pedersen said. “The hard part is that I cannot exactly question religious exemption forms.”

Should measles come to Greene County, unvaccinated students won’t be allowed at school.

“If an outbreak were to occur in our area or within our school body,” Pedersen explained, “all students that are not fully immunized would have to stay home for 21 days, no exceptions.”

The medical center’s decision to hire its own pediatrician is a long time coming.

“It’s been in the top three requests that the community has wanted,” said Carla Offenburger, community relations director for the medical center. “It’s important to have someone near.”

Slowly, parents are discovering that they no longer have to leave Greene County for pediatrics.

No, you still can’t deliver a baby at the Greene County Medical Center. The facility discontinued its OB service line in 2016 after 79 years, citing too few yearly births.

“OB was not sustainable,” Offenburger said.

In 2015, for example, 115 Greene County moms gave birth — but only 27 of them chose to give birth in Greene County.

That said, obstetrics and pediatrics aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Once you have a child, your OB/GYN is not your baby’s doctor,” Offenburger said. “One doesn’t sustain the other.”

In anticipation of Van de Voort’s arrival in Jefferson, the medical center mailed nearly 3,000 postcards to area households with children under the age of 18.

“It’s really hard to find pediatricians interested in rural settings,” Offenburger said.

Van de Voort is that rare pediatrician.

“I wanted a smaller town,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to being part of the community,” she added.

Back when she was 10, her parents moved from cozy and quaint Pella to a suburb of Atlanta, a metro of nearly 6 million people.

Van de Voort was happy to relocate to a place with less traffic.

“Almost every step of the way,” she said, “I’ve been trying to get back to Iowa. I’ve always wanted to get back.”

She even went so far as to resist adopting a Southern accent.

“My husband says I’m from Atlanta,” she said. “ ‘No, I’m not. I’m from Iowa.’ He knows that pushes my buttons.”

Van de Voort and husband Troy Border, a native of Ohio, have been married for six and a half years.

The Greene County Medical Center in recent years has struggled to keep pace with the number of school physicals, according to Offenburger.

Van de Voort’s presence will help — but to avoid the rush, Van de Voort encourages student-athletes to have their physicals for next school year at the end of the current school year.

She also recommends that children come in yearly for a well-visit.

“It’s good to know what they look like healthy,” Van de Voort said, “for when they come in sick.”

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