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President-elect candidate: ‘Ultimate patient advocate,’ Dr. Szilagyi known for work in foster care :

May 1, 2020

When Moira A. Szilagyi, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP, finished her doctorate, medical school training and pediatric residency, she had enough exposure to the pediatric world as a student, mother and doctor’s wife to know what area interested her most.

She had worked extensively with children in foster care and recognized their need for specialized pediatric support. The daughter of immigrants who struggled to make ends meet, she understood how a few tough breaks could wreak havoc on families and children.

“Children in foster care are a mission for me,” she said. “It returns me to my roots. So many things went right for me at so many points, starting with my parents. Not everyone is so lucky.”

It was an arduous task, however, as children in foster care had tremendous health needs but there were few standards for how to care for them. Undeterred, Dr. Szilagyi turned to the Academy for help. She chaired monthly task force meetings in New York City, where members created groundbreaking guidance for treating some of society’s most vulnerable children.

“The resources the Academy has put into children involved with child welfare have been amazing. And we have to do this work. If we don’t do it, we miss untold opportunities to improve trajectories and outcomes,” she said. “The AAP became the crucible for the most meaningful and impactful work of my career on behalf of vulnerable children.”

Dr. Szilagyi hopes to reciprocate that impact as the Academy’s next president-elect.

AAP career highlights

Dr. Szilagyi has chaired the AAP Council on Foster Care, Adoption and Kinship Care (COFCAKC) Executive Committee, headed the New York District II Task Force on Foster Care and has authored AAP policies on children involved with child welfare. She also served as vice chair of the AAP Task Force that culminated in the Healthy Foster Care America website (www.aap.org/fostercare), an initiative of the AAP to disseminate best practices and information for multidisciplinary professionals and families serving children in foster care.

Beyond clinical care, her most valued work has been her 20-plus years working with the AAP Washington office on child welfare legislation.

“Moira leads by example, consensus and by teaching us all what, why and how to do the best for children,” said Heather C. Forkey, M.D., FAAP, a COFCAKC executive committee member. “In every interaction with Moira, one comes away feeling better not just about the issue, but more empowered and capable, as she promotes the efficacy of those she leads.”

If elected, Dr. Szilagyi intends to focus on three areas in line with AAP strategic priorities: strong, unified advocacy to promote optimal health for all children; evidence-informed interventions to reduce the burden of trauma and toxic stress on children, caregivers and physicians; and member wellness initiatives, including equitable pay.

From left, Dr. Szilagyi’s son-in-law Scott MacArthur with her grandson Ford; son Michael; daughter Kate (Szilagyi) MacArthur; granddaughter Stella MacArthur, Dr. Szilagyi and husband Peter; and daughter-in-law Taylor Gage Olcott (married to Michael).

Multiple roles

In addition to her AAP leadership roles, Dr. Szilagyi is a primary care pediatrician, academic leader, educator and developmental expert who is professor of pediatrics, interim division chief of general pediatrics and section chief of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles. Under contract with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, she is focused on the development of integrated-care pediatric medical homes for children involved with child welfare.

Before she and her husband moved to California in 2014 to be near their grandchildren, she created and served as medical director of an integrated care medical home for children in foster/kinship care in Rochester, N.Y. Dr. Szilagyi also created a regional child abuse program at the University of Rochester, where she was a pediatrics professor and continuity clinic preceptor.

In 2010, Dr. Szilagyi obtained a grant to build a 20,000-square-foot center that combined health services for children in foster care with supervised visitation for families impacted by domestic violence or foster care. A second grant funded a national model that integrated mental health services and training for foster parents into the pediatric and visitation settings.

“Dr. Szilagyi is the ultimate patient advocate, especially for those vulnerable children and teens who need someone to speak on their behalf,” said Neil E. Herendeen, M.D., M.S., FAAP, director of the Golisano Children’s Hospital Pediatric Practice at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “She listens intently, establishes trust — even when a child has no reason to trust adults — and finds the strengths in each family to build upon.”

Early influences

Born in Australia to Irish immigrant parents, Dr. Szilagyi moved to upstate New York when she was 9. Her parents, who left school after eighth grade, were actively involved in caring for the elderly in their low-income community and promoted education.

The family’s shaky financial situation improved when her father obtained a job at Ford Motor Co. The 12-hour, seven-day-a-week shifts were grueling, but the family had health insurance and a steady income.

A Ford Foundation scholarship also made college possible for Dr. Szilagyi. After graduating from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., with a chemistry degree, she pursued a master’s and Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Rochester. There, surrounded by medical students and after a personal health scare, she began contemplating a medical degree.

She entered medical school in 1979, while completing her doctoral thesis, taking a break between her second and third years to have her first child. Her husband, Peter G. Szilagyi, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, took a six-month hiatus from medicine so she could return to school.

“And he's a much better pediatrician because of the fact that he got to be a stay-at- home dad,” Dr. Szilagyi said.

The couple has a son, Michael, who is a police officer near Seattle, and a daughter, Kate, who runs an online company aimed at promoting respectful conversations among people with disparate viewpoints. The Szilagyis enjoy their grandchildren, hiking, kayaking and playing tennis.

In 2018, their home burned down in a wildfire that killed three people and destroyed 1,643 structures in the Los Angeles area. They lost many pictures, family heirlooms and most of their belongings, but the loss made the important things — family, friends, health and fulfilling work — even more precious. “The current pandemic reminds us all that the only redemption in suffering is the care and compassion we show each other,” Dr. Szilagyi said.

“I've had the most blessed career. I am deeply grateful to be able to do fulfilling work with wonderful colleagues on behalf of and with vulnerable patients and families. Parents are a child’s safe harbor. What an honor it is that they trust us to help them help their children.”

The AAP election will take place from May 26-June 9 at aap.org/vote. Visit Dr. Szilagyi’s website at https://www.drmoira4kids.com/.

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