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Care when a child has a sudden need

Medicine@Yale, 2019 - November December


A career of treating young patients and seeing that emergency rooms run well

Karen Santucci, MD, professor of pediatrics (emergency medicine) and of emergency medicine, usually has two things in her purse: dollar store items, and snacks. Both carry important significance to her work in the pediatric department at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, where she performs several roles including section chief of emergency medicine and interim section chief of pediatric oncology and hematology. She also is vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

The snacks she keeps with her are for meetings or shifts in the emergency department, to keep everyone energized. The dollar store items she uses as props and prizes during her Friday rounds, which she calls TGIIFF—Team Gathering Innovation, Information, Facts, and Fun. Providing for her team and her patients is a cornerstone of Santucci’s professional career.

Born near New York City, Santucci was the first in her family to go to college and the first to pursue medicine. She credits watching her firefighter father as early exposure to the world of emergency care.

Santucci received her BS in biology from the College of Mount Saint Vincent. But she almost did not go to medical school—her college advisor urged her not to apply, saying that she wouldn’t get in. She accepted a teaching fellowship at New York University instead. Halfway through the year she realized that medicine still called to her, and decided to apply to New York-based medical schools. She was accepted to the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine, where she also completed her residency before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, to complete a fellowship at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

Santucci always had an interest in pediatrics, but ultimately chose pediatric emergency medicine because she knew that was the only way she could leave some of her work “at the office.”

“I knew I had to control when I had patient exposure because I get very invested in them,” she says. “Having trusted colleagues to whom I can pass the baton at the end of a shift was a way to have everything in the hospital, but have a family too.”

Santucci came to Yale in 1999. That same year she helped design and launch a pediatric emergency medicine fellowship program, which now receives more than 100 applicants a year for two available positions. And that was just the beginning of her influence in the department.

Santucci has been section chief of pediatric emergency medicine since 2010, and until recently served as medical director of emergency pediatrics, before transitioning to vice chair of clinical affairs. Two and a half years ago she was also asked to start a pediatric emergency medicine program at Greenwich Hospital, which is part of Yale New Haven Health. It went live in November 2018. Santucci is supported by 12 pediatric emergency physicians from Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, and says the program is performing extremely well.

“Watching other community hospitals, we recognized over the years that strength in recruiting and retention correlates with having the academic affiliation with Yale,” she says. “It’s really a landmark event to have 13 of us from Yale working at Greenwich and representing Yale School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.”

Santucci’s efforts in Greenwich were recognized this past May, when she was honored at Greenwich Hospital’s annual Under the Stars event. But in keeping with her low-key style, she credits most of her success—and the emergency department’s achievements—to her colleagues. “I work with absolute giants,” she says. “They’re amazing people, and I would do just about anything for them.”

The same goes for her patients. Pediatric emergency medicine presents its own special sets of challenges, she says, due to how young incoming patients are and, oftentimes, their fear of doctors. The right knee of Santucci’s scrubs is often worn thin from the amount of time she spends kneeling next to beds, comforting both patients and their families. But she also finds treating children to be a more hopeful endeavor than treating some adults.

“One of the beautiful things about pediatric emergency medicine is that we’re getting to these children early enough that we might actually be able to change a trajectory,” she says. “There’s a very different illness set on the adult side.”

When she is not in the emergency department, Santucci is running between her offices, juggling her administrative roles. It has been a little tricky, she admits, since she now spends half her time in Greenwich. She is putting in 80-90-hour weeks.

Luckily her family, including her husband and two children aged 23 and 18, are very understanding. “My kids are very supportive of the fact that when I’m not able to be at home, it’s because I’m off taking care of someone else’s child who needs help,” she says.

So far, her two hospital schedules have rarely conflicted, save one evening when Santucci was called by the emergency department at Greenwich when she was on shift at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. When she finally arrived in Greenwich, a bit flustered but only a few minutes late, she says the staff there had only one question for her: “Does this mean you didn’t bring snacks?”