May 2020: Ellie Smith-Khuri '89

Dr. Ellie Smith-Khuri ’89 is amazed by how rapidly and how dramatically our world has changed in the wake of COVID-19. A pediatrician and senior partner at Children's Pediatricians and Associates in Washington, DC, an urban practice affiliated with Children's National Hospital, Ellie is also a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, a wife and mother of two. In the past eight weeks she has been a part of the huge transformation in how healthcare is provided to protect patients and caregivers from COVID-19. Yet, she remains “deeply impressed and optimistic by the tenacity and resilience of people when faced with real adversity.” Read on for  her story about developing leadership skills and confidence at Lyman Circle to her life today, including what she wishes more people knew about COVID-19.

If you could describe your Laurel experience as a Tweet (240 characters or less) what would it be?
Laurel made me a better version of myself by encouraging excellence, risk-taking, leadership, empathy, authenticity and intellectual and personal growth, grounded in the stability provided by inspiring teachers and alumnae and by deep and lasting friendships.
What were your favorite classes and/or who were your favorite teachers at Laurel?
Eighth Grade English with Mrs. Chandler impacted my life significantly. I learned to read critically through A Tale of Two Cities, which certainly played a role in my inclination to be an English major in college.  My Laurel friends and I frequently talk about the grammar rules we learned by diagramming sentences and how we wish that our kids had the same experience. Middle School science with Mrs. Lacey got me excited about science (and metric cookies!) and calculus with Mrs. Llewellyn was not only the most fun class of the day, but it built tremendous confidence in my intellectual abilities. Lastly, I can’t emphasize enough how useful the skills are that we learned in speech class with Mrs. Schenk.
Name something that you learned at Laurel that you draw on even now. Bonus points if at the time you wondered if you would ever use it in your adult life!
I believe the leadership skills that we learned at Laurel are critically important to me in most aspects of my life. I’m comfortable speaking up in any group and I trust my ability to represent myself well because of those public speaking skills we learned. Laurel encouraged leadership more than I’ve observed in other high schools and I also loved that I had no gender-stereotypes about what leaders looked like. I did appreciate learning those skills while I was at Laurel—I’m pretty sure that was one of my selling points about Laurel when I was a Green Key guide!
After One Lyman Circle, you earned a B.A. in English from Tufts University. Then, after three years, you went back to school for your MD from Columbia University. What inspired you to become a doctor and what was it like going back to school? 
I wasn’t on a clear career path in the early college years, but becoming a physician became intriguing to me when I considered my range of meaningful experiences: studying math and science at Laurel, leading bike trips for teens in college summers, developing an interest in human physiology as a college athlete, and my ongoing commitment to serving both individuals and the community at large. Post-baccalaureate premedical studies were rare when I finished college, so it felt risky to attempt a non-traditional application to medical school. However, I have often taken a different course—taking a semester off to travel in college, the post-college years of working and taking premed classes before enrolling in medical school and postponing residency to simultaneously start a family and pursue a research fellowship at the NIH.  I truly have to thank Laurel for showing me first that I could pursue an alternate path, because Laurel allowed me to spend a semester of my Junior year living abroad. I had to come up with a comprehensive proposal to show the school how I could make up my coursework, but Laurel worked with me and helped make it happen. 
Today you’re a pediatrician in a primary care practice affiliated with Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. How has your hospital/practice adapted to address the threat of COVID-19 and care for those who show symptoms?
Our primary care practice and the hospital have adapted a lot to protect patients and caregivers and to decrease any chance of transmission. Both sites have shifted significantly from in-person visits to telemedicine, which was just in the pilot phase when the Covid-19 crisis started. Now a majority of patient visits are provided through telemedicine.  We also have become creative with appointment scheduling, both to reduce any contact between patients in the office and to decrease contact between co-workers.  Another challenge has been locating PPE (personal protective equipment) and then finding ways to consolidate doctor-patient contact in order to reduce the use of our limited supply. We also have  found ways to increase phone and email support for our patients. Our office looks and functions much differently today than it did eight weeks ago.
What do you wish more people knew about COVID-19? 
I hope that people understand that reopening society is unlikely to be immediate or permanent.  We should expect to reopen gradually, but as areas open and social restrictions drop, infections may surge and we’ll need to pull back and impose some level of restrictions and social distancing again. This will likely be a long process with steps forward and steps back until we have very reliable and quick testing with extensive contact tracing and, eventually, a vaccine.
What has surprised you the most about the current situation?
I’m amazed by how rapidly and how dramatically our world changed. Families have created entirely new structures to work and care for children at home. Institutions have transformed themselves. Medical facilities, schools, businesses, and almost any organization imaginable have completely reinvented how they function. The societal transformation in just months feels surreal, but I remain deeply impressed and optimistic by the tenacity and resilience of people when faced with real adversity.
In your professional opinion, what is the single biggest factor that will make a difference in keeping our families safe and healthy? 
We most need adaptability, because our understanding of the virus and the tools we have to prevent it are constantly evolving. While our best tool right now is social distancing, it may be that contact tracing and self-imposed quarantining will become mainstream once widespread, reliable testing is available. Ultimately, we need to continue to educate ourselves through reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to understand the latest guidelines and recommendations. But, without a doubt, handwashing and sanitizing will continue to have a crucial role in prevention!      
As a pediatrician, do you have suggestions for age-appropriate ways to talk to children about the pandemic? Have you observed any mental health effects in children from this abrupt change in daily life?  
All ages of children have been affected by this situation. For example, we see behavior regressions in younger children and increased stress levels in preteens and teens. As with any stressful event, it’s best for parents to discuss the situation in a calm, honest and upfront manner. A good way to start is by asking what the child already knows about Coronavirus to gauge her or his understanding. It’s surprising how many misperceptions I’ve seen across all  ages. All children also will benefit from and be reassured by concrete examples of how they can protect themselves through healthy habits like washing hands and good sleep. Parents should also remember to care for themselves, since children are extremely astute and pick up on parental anxiety and stress. 
How do you practice self-care? Do you have any book or movie recommendations you are currently enjoying? Any hobbies you enjoy?
I should do better taking my own advice about self-care! I love to read and I actually get book recommendations from a group chat with my Laurel friends. Lately, I’ve been drawn to big, complex stories, which are a great escape: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Even though I read it a while ago, I remain in awe of fellow Clevelander (and CCIS alum) Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. My other form of self-care is walking, running and hiking in DC. We probably take advantage of Washington’s beautiful monuments and downtown at least once a weekend.
What advice would you give to Laurel’s Class of 2020?
Don’t be afraid of veering off the path. I was a math-oriented high schooler who majored in English in college. Then I was a college English major who went to medical school after post-baccalaureate studies. Particularly in our current times, the path may not be direct, so it will be helpful to be adaptable and creative as you work towards your ultimate goals. I’m glad I took advantage of unique opportunities, even if nontraditional, because they have enriched my life and undoubtedly contributed to career and life choices I have made. 
What makes you proud to be a Laurel alum?
My peers make me most proud. I’m proud to be part of a community of such intelligent, confident, socially engaged, intellectually curious and empathic women.
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