With Dr. Benjamin Danielson as medical director, Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic connects patients to resources to tackle the roots of health problems.
When Dr. Benjamin Danielson reported for work during his second week as medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central District, the formidable woman then in charge of the clinic announced they’d be taking a tour.
Danielson, eager to learn more about the clinic, thought he’d be getting the insider’s tour. Instead, director Elizabeth R. Thomas, the pediatric nurse practitioner who fostered a vision of quality medical care for low-income children in Seattle and King County, walked him outside to the parking lot. She turned away from the building to face Yesler Way.
“The value of your worth,’’ she told the young pediatrician, “is not going to be measured by what you do in there, but in what you do out there. You have to care about the kids you don’t see just as much as you care about the kids you do see in the clinic.”
Danielson recounts the story in the clinic’s narrow entryway, where four plaques, all hanging low enough for children to read, describe the contributions of Thomas and three other African-American women who founded and ran the clinic.
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“I stand on their shoulders,’’ says Danielson, who has led the clinic since 1999. It’s not an empty sentiment. Now 52 years old, Danielson has poured his passion the past 16-plus years into improving the health and circumstances of low-income children and families, both inside and outside the clinic.
Though most of his clinic work involves the African-American community, Danielson’s advocacy on behalf of all vulnerable people has benefited thousands throughout the county. In 2008, he helped found the Washington Medical-Legal Partnership, which trains doctors to recognize when forces outside the examination room contribute to health problems. The group links patients to pro bono attorneys who can help with issues that contribute to ill health in people with few resources, such as poor living conditions or access to costly interventions denied by insurance coverage.
In fact, Danielson makes a compelling case that hunger is the root cause of illness in many of his patients.
“I see the face of hunger in my clinic every day,’’ he told an audience in 2011. “The idea of hunger and the idea of constantly worrying about how to get a meal on the table is a powerfully difficult thing for families to deal with.” Constant stress, the hustle to get by, manifests physically in “ridiculously high amounts of hypertension in kids, diabetes, asthma,” fractured families, and even in the social and emotional development of children and their ability to function at school.
“It’s insufficient in the medical system to wait for children to be sick before we intervene,’’ he said in the talk to the United Way. “We have to move upstream.” That’s why the clinic offers nutrition counseling and dental services, mental-health services that include parental coaching, even books for kids to take home after every visit.
As Danielson moves effortlessly through the clinic, he stops to introduce staff to a visitor, talking them up so much that some grow visibly shy. When he stops to greet a young patient in the waiting area, he puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder and asks how school’s going before turning to the boy’s mother to check with her. She laughs about her son’s attachment to his electronic-game device, but says they’ve worked out a good schedule. Danielson chats with the security guard, a mental-health counselor and two patient coordinators, crediting each with doing a great job.
“He’s one of my favorite people in the whole world,’’ says Patricia Hayes, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, describing Danielson as “a gentle, quiet soul who speaks so from the heart, and has the ability to move people to address issues of equity and social justice.”
Hayes says Danielson’s leadership style is so effective she has adopted it as her model.
Hayes cited Danielson’s role in supporting the Rainier Valley Community Clinic, which provides midwife services for ethnic communities in Rainier Valley, as an example of his leadership. “It’s innovative; it’s definitely a step ahead of where our health-care system is, and it meets the need of the community,’’ she says.
Danielson seems far more comfortable giving compliments than receiving them, and will allow only that he “might have been a little helpful in connecting their work to some parts of the mainstream health-care system.”
Even during a recent ceremony for the Norm Maleng Advocate for Youth Award, which recognized Danielson’s “exemplary leadership, dedication and commitment to the youth and families of Washington state,” he tried to dull the shine by talking about his incompetence at loading the dishwasher and how there were others more deserving of the award.
The list of boards and organizations on which he serves makes you wonder when he sleeps: Equal Start Community Coalition. Health Coalition for Children and Youth. Children’s Alliance Public Policy Council. United Way of King County. The Washington State Health Exchange Board. To name a few.
Dr. Frederick Rivara, vice chairman of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s, who has worked with Danielson for 20 years, says Danielson’s empathy is deep, and his humility genuine.
“He’s enormously admired in how he takes care of patients, combining skill as a physician and compassion as a human being,’’ says Rivara, who is vice-president of academic affairs for the University of Washington School of Medicine’s pediatrics department. “He doesn’t talk a lot about it, but his story is an incredible success story.”
A boy on the move
His story might also help explain why Danielson became a champion of the poor in one of the richest cities in America.
Danielson exudes calm, but says some of that could be an inclination to keep his head down and not draw too much attention. He shares that quality with other children who have lived in foster care, he says.
When he was born in 1964, his mother — a Peace Corps volunteer with an aptitude for math and a master’s degree in wildlife biology — put him into foster care. His father, a Nigerian, was black, and his mother was white. Danielson says it was “unacceptable” in Boston at that time for a single white woman to be raising a black son.
Danielson lived with three or four families during that time — he says he doesn’t know if they were strangers or relatives, or any details about them except that he was 3 years old and living in Boston when his mother returned for him, and took him to La Paz, Bolivia, where he lived with her and his older sister.
When Danielson was 5, his mother left the Peace Corps and moved the family to a low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C. By then, he also had a younger sister.
“I think she really made this sacrifice when she took on this brave thing of wanting to have me back in her life,’’ he says. “I think she also recognized she was a single woman — my sisters were all white — and I think she had a lot of things to impart, but she recognized she didn’t know what to do with an African-American male. And so I think she intentionally moved to a black neighborhood in D.C., to try to immerse me in culture.
“It worked and it backfired. I found a sense of belonging with other lost boys who were slightly angry and confused.”
While his mother worked as the head of the math department at a Catholic school in Maryland, young Ben got into a fair amount of trouble. He says he hung out in a nearby neighborhood, and did stupid things. He was kept in line by Momma Pearl, an “irascible, codgety” woman who hit misbehaving kids with kitchen utensils, he says, and once secretly bailed him out of juvenile hall by pretending to be his mother.
A few months after his 11th birthday, his mother — whom he affectionately calls “Hippie Jude,” moved the family to a tiny town at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, where she worked as a forestry technician with the U.S. Forest Service and eventually become a supervisory genetics forester with a degree in silviculture and botany from the University of Montana.
Danielson says he felt more of an existential threat in Montana than he did in D.C., where guns were largely hidden and his community was composed of people with brown skin. In mostly white Montana, people called him racial epithets and carried guns openly on racks in the backs of their pickups, a practice Danielson found particularly unnerving when a driver would occasionally slow to a crawl alongside him as he walked, and reach back to pat a gun.
In both places, the family scraped by through hard times, and the children embraced their mother’s admonitions that education was the best route out of poverty and into a secure future.
Danielson graduated from Harvard, and then the University of Washington School of Medicine. He chose to specialize in pediatrics because of his previous experiences coaching youth and volunteering with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, he says.
He did his residency at Seattle Children’s, where he still sees patients. And he celebrates his mother, who retired and became an artist, by hanging her paintings throughout the clinic.
‘He’s stuck around’
Rivara says Danielson is “resilient and caring, and as a result, he is able to give back. He tries to provide the best possible care for children and families who don’t always get the best of things.”
In the waiting room, a woman visiting the clinic is waxing enthusiastically about Danielson. She echoes much of what Rivara and Hayes say about him, and appreciates how he always seems to have time for everyone.
“You know what I like best about him?” she asks. “He stuck around.”
Unfortunately, the community hasn’t. With the gentrification of the Central District, as much as 40 percent of the clinic’s African-American population live south in suburbs such as Kent and Federal Way and Renton. That’s made it more challenging to meet the community’s needs without forcing them to travel, Danielson says.
That means the clinic itself will be moving south to meet the population. That means that Danielson, who lives in the neighborhood, will have to travel more, too.