People Of Michigan Medicine: A Life Devoted to Making Gray Skies Blue for Kids

Originally posted by Michigan Medicine Headlines

Welcome to the next installment of The People of Michigan Medicine, a place where we highlight the personal side of things. In this space, we ask colleagues to provide experiences, talents, and viewpoints personal to them, while also sharing what makes Michigan Medicine a special place to be.

This month, we highlight Susan Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., whose winding path to Michigan Medicine has led to a career committed to helping kids live up to their true potential.

A rosy outlook

The skies over her childhood home in North London are usually gray.

But Woolford, a pediatrician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and researcher at Michigan Medicine, never noticed as a kid. It wasn't until she moved to Michigan for college and then went back home to visit that she became aware of the cloud cover.

"It's funny to me, when I got here, people would say, 'Oh, it's so gray in England,' and I would say, 'Is it? Really?'" Woolford said. "I had no idea it was gray. We used to sit outside and thought we were sitting in the sun. It seemed fine to me. It was only when I went home after living here for a while that I thought, 'Oh, yes, it is gray. Oh, my goodness, who knew?'"

It can be hard to see gray when life is mostly rosy, and Woolford admits to having a happy childhood in London, where museums and bookstores are part of the landscape, for her, masking the often-gray skies. Her mother, Phyllis, was an ICU nurse and part of her inspiration for going into medicine. Woolford’s father, Orville, was a physicist who became an education director for the Trans-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and, for a time, a principal for a religious high school Woolford attended -- and where she learned life can be persistently gray for some.

“It was a school that my father was instrumental in opening in a lower-income neighborhood,” Woolford said, her British accent still very much evident. “So, I think I got a unique mix: I had parents who could help me and guide me and direct me, but I had an experience of being in a setting with several people who didn’t have those benefits and who didn’t have many resources in an area where there were few resources. I got to see firsthand the hurdles many people encounter and the hardships they face."

Hardships that Woolford, after leaving London and finding her new home in Michigan, has spent most of her life working to amend.

Coming to America

She followed her older sister, Carole, to the U.S. to attend Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, then received her medical training at Michigan State University. After questioning her decision to become a doctor at every step throughout the process, Woolford said U-M is where she found her true professional calling and the way to have the biggest impact on children’s lives.

“I always liked the patients, always enjoyed working with parents, but always wondered, ‘Hmm, is this quite the right choice?” Woolford said. “And then I came to U-M to participate in a fellowship in pediatric health services research, and it opened up a combination of wonderful opportunities. That’s when I finally thought, ‘Yes! This is it.’ 

“I totally enjoy being able to conduct innovative research, being involved in clinical care and participating in community-engaged initiatives. It’s a phenomenal setting with great mentors and an infrastructure  that provides the potential to really make a difference. I don’t think it’s possible in all settings, but it’s possible here at U-M.”

Woolford Spotlight

Meeting of like minds

The university also made it possible for Woolford to meet Gary Freed, another pediatrician at Mott, and together in early 2023, they initiated two child health equity programs: the Program for Equity in Adolescent and Child Health (PEACH) and the Michigan Child Health Equity Collaborative (MI-CHEC). 

Freed first interviewed Woolford for her fellowship and, after developing a professional relationship with her throughout the years, appointed her as associate director of PEACH and Mi-CHEC, which seek to examine and address potential inequities in the care of children and adolescents at U-M Health and beyond.

“We have very similar priorities regarding our concern about health equity and making the lives of children better,” said Woolford, whose main focus is on childhood obesity prevention and treatment, particularly for adolescents with severe obesity. 

“Several factors that contribute to excess weight are related to disparities and health inequities,” Woolford said. “As it relates to disparities, we know that your zip code, race, income all impact whether or not somebody is going to develop excess weight. And then when we consider how people with excess weight are treated in the health care system, there are distinct problems. Implicit bias against those with excess weight plays out, in some cases, in how we treat patients.

“To be able to contribute to work in the health equity space, to be able to make care better for all, including those who have excess weight, is very rewarding for me.”

Eyes on the future

With Freed nearing retirement, Woolford said continuing that rewarding work, even growing it, is their intent.

“When so much effort has been invested in developing programs as promising as these, one doesn’t want them to just go away,” Woolford said. “Our goal is to ensure that they flourish and make a difference in the lives of children for many years to come.”

Even beyond the years when she’s in the workforce. 

Woolford is committed to mentoring the next generation of health researchers and opening opportunities for a wider group to become involved in health research. As such, she serves as the faculty lead for the Translational Science Summer Internship for graduate students at the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research. To move earlier in the pipeline, she started the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center Summer Internship for undergraduate students. 

Woolford sees her involvement in that pipeline as an integral way of diversifying the workforce. 

“We can also reach out in meaningful ways to the community and bring them in,” Woolford said. “We can bring them into the workforce, incorporate them in research discussions and research teams, not just as research participants.”

The pastor’s wife

Outside of her work life, Woolford, the wife of a pastor, is driven by her passion and faith to make a difference in the lives of children in the community. 

"Faith plays such an essential role in my life," says Woolford, who serves as a children’s ministry leader at Living Water Church in Southfield and spends her weekends helping in the churches of her husband, Darren White. In addition to Living Water, White is also the pastor at Community Fellowship Church in Lathrup Village. 

"I think I have been the recipient of so many blessings,” Woolford continued. “But God doesn't give us things so that we can hold onto them and just say, 'Yay, this is wonderful that I have all of this.' I think we're just stewards with the purpose, the joy, of using what we have to help others.”

Woolford often lives out that credo by volunteering. At a recent event in Detroit, a free medical and dental clinic for the underserved, Woolford led the pediatric effort, which had been overlooked by the event’s organizers until she got involved and helped build a team.

“We were able to have a whole space just dedicated to pediatrics," Woolford said. "By the end of the day, I was completely exhausted; however, there were people who came in that didn’t have any other sources of care, and we were able to help them and connect them with long-term resources.”

That’s Woolford, always trying to turn gray skies blue for kids and their families.

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