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New board member: Dr. Wright, pediatric emergency medicine expert, keeps breaking barriers :

February 28, 2020

In the sixth grade, Joseph Wright’s teacher scheduled a meeting with his father. She suggested his parents remove him from their neighborhood school and enroll him at Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School, which she believed would provide a better learning environment.

The campus wasn’t within walking distance of their Brooklyn home, but the Wrights wanted their son to have every opportunity available to him. As such, he began taking two subway trains and a bus to school each day. He was only 11.

“There was an inherent resilience that was baked into growing up,” said Joseph L. Wright, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP. “I look back on that time as a lesson in the power and the value of resilience.”

Such resilience put Dr. Wright on a path toward history as he recently became only the second African American board member in the Academy’s 90-year history and the first representing at-large or specialty fellows.

A nationally known expert in pediatric emergency medicine, Dr. Wright believes his election represents a watershed moment for the AAP.

“The Academy is clearly open to assessing how they can encourage more and broader engagement,” he said. “I'm excited about it.”

Forging a path

As a boy in Brooklyn, a career in medicine would have seemed unlikely for Dr. Wright. His mother worked as a social worker, and his father was a New York City police officer. His uncles were police, too.

The oldest of three boys, he lived with his family in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood during the 1970s. He says he “grew up fast” in part because of his parents’ grueling work schedules and also because of the challenges facing his community.

As his grade school teacher predicted, he excelled at Poly Prep and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Though he had little exposure to the medical field and was diverging from his family’s typical professional path — one of his brothers also joined the NYC Police Department — he believed pediatrics was his calling and enrolled at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“Pediatrics seemed like a natural place, but I had no one in my family in health care,” he said. “To do something I had not been exposed to, like going to medical school, was a natural point for who I am as a person.”

Defining moments

After finishing his pediatric residency in 1986 at Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, D.C., Dr. Wright made a four-year commitment to the National Health Service Corps, agreeing to practice in an area with limited access to care in exchange for help paying his student loans. He was assigned to a clinic in Brooklyn, just around the block from his great-grandmother’s house where he often joined her for lunch.

As he cared for the kids of kids he had known growing up, Dr. Wright saw the value of community pediatrics and the difference accessible health care can make.

“This was a defining moment of my career,” he said. “This experience convinced me I needed to incorporate an emphasis on public health into my career.”

After completing his commitment to the National Health Service Corps, Dr. Wright earned a master of public health degree in administrative medicine and management from George Washington University. He began working at the Children's National Health System in 1992, eventually becoming a senior vice president responsible for shaping the organization’s advocacy mission, public policy positions and community partnerships.

Dr. Wright also served for 17 years as the state pediatric medical director within the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, in addition to a number of years as principal investigator of the federally funded Emergency Medical Services for Children National Resource Center.

Dr. Wright left the Children's National Health System in 2014 to become professor and chair of pediatrics at Howard University College of Medicine, a position previously held by former AAP President Renée R. Jenkins, M.D., FAAP, the first African American elected to the Academy’s highest post. Dr. Jenkins believed Dr. Wright’s compassion for young pediatricians made him suited for the job.

“Joe is very aware of how challenging it is for younger pediatricians to connect professionally and navigate the career waters,” Dr. Jenkins said. “He takes an active role in connecting with them and connecting them to colleagues who can support them. I see him as a career nurturer for younger pediatricians.”

Dr. Wright joined the Academy as a young pediatrician in 1987 and has served in several leadership positions since then. He is outgoing chair of the AAP Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine, was inaugural chair of the Violence Prevention Subcommittee and chaired the Task Force on Addressing Bias and Discrimination.

He has been recognized for his advocacy work, receiving two lifetime achievement awards from the AAP for distinguished contributions to injury prevention and emergency medicine.

Dr. Wright now helps begin a new chapter for the Academy. His colleagues say he has the heart and the head required for the role.

“He leads by example and with courage to take on the most difficult challenges,” said Kurt D. Newman, M.D., FAAP, president and CEO of Children’s National Hospital. “He is both visionary and pragmatic.”

Interim president and CEO, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the University of Maryland (UM) Capital Region Health, Dr. Wright also is adjunct professor of pediatrics and health services administration at the UM Schools of Medicine and Public Health.

In his free time, he and his wife, Frances, a pediatric nurse practitioner, enjoy traveling and spending time with their two adult sons, Justin and Christopher, daughter-in-law, Julia, and grand dog, a goldendoodle named Simba. They often vacation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where his family long has had roots and his paternal grandparents are buried.

Dr. Wright's family gathers at youngest son Christopher's college graduation. From left: Dr. Wright, son Justin, son Christopher and Dr. Wright's wife, Frances, who is a pediatric nurse practitioner.

Dr. Wright intends to dedicate much of his time in the coming years to the AAP Board. It’s a responsibility he feels to both the Academy and his barrier-breaking role within it.

“I want to be really open and flexible to the possibilities with the board. I really want to bring an authentic perspective, one that is rooted in my experiences,” he said. “The America of today and the America of tomorrow has diversity of thought and diversity of representation.”

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