Simply referring to Maria Trent, M.D., as a pediatrician is a bit like calling Barack Obama an executive.
The Johns Hopkins Children's Center doctor's continuing achievements as a researcher, clinician, professor and advocate for adolescent health education brought her to the attention of Ebony magazine's editorial board, which named her in its December issue as one of the nation's 100 most influential African-Americans for 2013. She and her fellow honorees — including Kerry Washington, Magic Johnson, Harry Belafonte, Marian Wright Edelman and the aforementioned executive — were celebrated this month at New York's Lincoln Center.
But while science is her calling, it's compassion for people that drives her. In fact, she credits her current research path, on pelvic inflammatory disease, to a 15-year-old girl who had fallen through cracks in the system 11 years ago. Before then, Trent was pursuing research on a disorder called PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome); and while she still sees patients for PCOS and other menstrual disorders, she realized that PID and other STDs were a bigger threat to future fertility for the urban girls she was seeing in Baltimore.
Trent says that the 15-year-old "had been diagnosed with PID at a local emergency room but two weeks later was in my office, still experiencing abdominal pain. It turns out that she'd been discharged from the ER in the middle of the night without being fully informed about next steps and hadn't filled her prescription for antibiotics. Mind you, this is a serious pelvic infection associated with infertility, chronic pelvic pain and tubal pregnancy. In my opinion, the system failed her, and I found myself so moved by her story that I transitioned my research to ensure that this couldn't happen again to girls so early in their reproductive life histories.
"Since then, the Children's Center has a record of PID care delivery that far exceeds the national average, and we've been able to really help patients struggling with this all-too-common diagnosis."
We caught up with Trent to learn more about what she does — and how it feels to be suddenly on the celebrity scene.
What was your reaction when told you'd been named one of Ebony's most influential people of 2013?
In a word, awesome! I grew up reading the magazine. It was and still is a key source of information for African-Americans, a positive place where people can see themselves and read articles on issues facing African-Americans in the nation. I'm unbelievably honored to be part of their history.
Did you always want a career in health care?
I grew up in a small rural town in North Carolina as part of a large extended family, so caring for children and aging relatives came with the territory. I attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, which has an intense curriculum and early exposure to health-related courses, so a health care career was a natural progression.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It's different every day of the week. On Monday, I'm in the clinic. Tuesdays and Thursdays are for working on my research. Wednesdays I'm teaching first-year med students the clinical foundations of medicine. Fridays are for educational seminars with our trainees in adolescent medicine.
What's the best part of your day?
I love working with trainees and watching their development over time. Interacting with patients and their families in the Harriet Lane Clinic and in the Children's Center inspires me to keep doing the research. Hopkins allows students to learn about caring for patients from day one, so it's a wonderful place to mix clinical care, teaching and research.
Can you briefly explain your current research?
My focus is on helping adolescent girls better manage reproductive disorders that can affect fertility. As an example, we're conducting a clinical trial funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research to test a technology-enhanced community health nursing intervention program that could reduce STDs among urban adolescents diagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease. We are also working with bench researchers to better understand the disease's biology and develop new testing and prevention strategies.
What advice do you give parents about raising healthy children?
Be active and engaged. The transition from childhood to adulthood is beautiful, but making healthy choices can be challenging. A safety net is important to help adolescents navigate the normal challenges of teen life. I advise parents to be active in their community and in their children's lives. I also want them to come with their adolescent and talk with me at least once a year so that I can be a part of that safety net.
What do you see as the top adolescent health care issues today?
Sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, mental health disorders and substance abuse. We're also not ensuring adolescents receive basic health education and services. For example, in Australia, HPV (human papilloma virus) disease is virtually nonexistent because of immunization, but we haven't done nearly as well here. Obesity is also a major concern, as it can cause otherwise preventable chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory issues.