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Her Rx: Equal parts humor, respect

Dr. Johnye Ballenger, who is beloved by her patients, cheers up a crying baby in her office at Children's Hospital Boston.
Dr. Johnye Ballenger, who is beloved by her patients, cheers up a crying baby in her office at Children's Hospital Boston. (Suzanne Kreiter)

There are two things every good pediatrician needs: a cast-iron immune system and a bottomless well of humor. Dr. Johnye Ballenger has at least one of these, even if on a recent Friday she's still a little hoarse from a case of ''pedi-crud" -- her poetic term for childhood contagions.

A longtime physician at Children's Hospital Boston, Ballenger is one of the region's best-known pediatricians -- not because she's especially probing with a microscope or because she keeps the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine on speed-dial but because of a bedside manner so jolly that she makes Santa Claus look like Oscar the Grouch. Her face beams with merriment and continually erupts in grins, chuckles, and the sort of expression that's often described as ''twinkling."

But Ballenger's methods don't simply involve smiles. There's a serious lesson she applies to all her work, one that led to her being the subject of a chapter in a 2000 book by Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot called ''Respect: An Exploration."

''In medical school, you learn to treat your cadaver with respect. It's not a piece of meat or a plastic model. It's a person," she said. ''You keep it covered. You do the dissections as carefully as possible."

The gleam comes back into her eye. ''I called my cadaver Farrah Fawcett Minor. Hello, Ms. Minor, how are you today?"

A native of Louisville, Ky., Ballenger was one of the first African-American pupils to attend integrated schools in the 1950s. She was usually the only black child in her class. After showing an aptitude for the sciences, she attended Brown University, then Howard University Medical School, before completing her residency at Boston City Hospital. It was then that she met the respected Massachusetts General Hospital pediatrician Norman Sherry, whose Cambridge practice she would go on to inherit. ''From him, I learned how to talk to a child," she says.

And talking to a child is one of the things Ballenger does best. To see her bustle around her office is to witness an entertainer (albeit, one with an expertise in ADHD treatment).

''Do you know what a googol is?" she asks, her glee radiating from her big, grandmotherly spectacles. ''It's a one with a hundred zeroes after it!" She whips out a children's book explaining Edward Kasner's impossibly large number, and within an instant she's referencing Winnie-the-Pooh and Maurice Sendak, too.

On staff at the Children's Hospital during the 1980s, Ballenger won her spurs in the difficult arena of treating adolescent mothers. She recalls seeing 13-year-old mothers whose own mothers were still breast-feeding and examining children complaining of abdominal discomfort only to discover that the pain was caused by simple hunger. Patients like these benefit most from what Ballenger calls ''bio-psycho-social medicine."

Ballenger, who lectures at Harvard Medical School and sits on the school's admissions board as well, tells her students: ''You have to address the issues outside the body that contribute to health or lack thereof. Do you listen to find out the problem?"

Respect is also key.

''Having the experience of Jim Crow, there's always an awareness of knowing what's respectful and what's not," she says. ''Growing up, you always had to have a handle for addressing an adult -- yes, ma'am; no, sir."

Ballenger still addresses people, no matter their circumstances, as Mister or Miss. While this may seem natural courtesy, it's all too often forgotten by doctors.

''Most of the people I met when I was working in poor areas were called by their first names. That sets a tone. It's very easy to dismiss someone who's disheveled, or homeless, or inebriated." Ballenger makes a distinction between the science of medicine and its art.

''Why does one patient get well and another one languish? Why are outcomes often so different? Part of that is how you relate to people. It's the time you take. It's those 5 a.m. calls you get from a parent when it's not an emergency. If you can get at the real reason they're coming to you, that's what healing is all about."


Age: ''You may allude to my age, but don't print it." It's between 56 and 58.

Family: Her husband, William Poole, is a retired attorney with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and ''a great house spouse." They have no children but plenty of nephews and nieces.

Hobbies: ''I have no time for them." When she does, she enjoys quilting, collecting art, and gardening. ''I have a wonderful clivia that blooms three times a year."

Peculiar talents: ''I've always had the gift -- and it is a gift -- of being able to talk to crazy people." Also, a green thumb (see above).

Advice for parents: ''Consistent, loving limits. I hate to see parents who are afraid of their children."

Advice for lawmakers: ''We should teach 9-10-year-olds how to drive. At that age, they have a wonderful ability to follow rules." It also makes more sense than trusting licenses to teenagers, all of whom are awash in volatile hormones, she says.

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