Leading the Charge in Preventing Childhood Injuries

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Barbara Barlow, MD, on building consensus for the greater good

As a teenager, Barbara Barlow knew she was smart, but she didn’t yet have the confidence to become a leader. This was part of the reason why she applied only to single-sex colleges.  

“I went to Vassar so that I didn’t have to go to school with guys, so that I could be bright and work hard and not feel out of place,” she recalls.

During her residency, her confidence as a leader began to gel.

“I was operating independently by the time I was a third-year resident,” she recalls. ”That puts your feet to the fire. If you don’t have the confidence in your abilities, there is no way you can do that.”

Affecting Change

She stepped up to affect positive change while working as a pediatric surgeon in Harlem. Her mission: to prevent childhood injuries.

Dr. Barlow recalls: “We had children raining out of windows in the summertime, when it was hot and there was no air conditioning. And they landed on their heads, because their heads are bigger than their bodies. They’d die. They’d get brain-injured.”

Cars would hit children playing in the streets. Kids were getting shot playing with illegal handguns.

“That’s how the injury prevention program was born,” she says. “I had to figure out how I was going to change things.”

With little funding, Dr. Barlow relied on leading a grassroots effort:

“It’s good they didn’t give me enough money to do anything because it’s much more powerful if you have a coalition of likeminded people who are working on the problem with you to make a difference,” she says. “I found people from the parks department who lived in Harlem. I found people from the Department of Transportation, from School Facilities. I got to know the principals. I had this whole army of School Health workers who wanted to do something for the children. And we had private foundations and private citizens who were interested in helping.”

Grammar school children performed safety skits entitled “Don’t be a Window Dropout,” and, “Children Can’t Fly.” Parents received a letter they could send to landlords in their rent checks that said, “I have a child under 10. I need window gates.” The word also was spread at the community clinic. 

“And very quickly we had like 96 percent of the community window-guarded. And the window falls stopped.”

Ensuring Change Lasts

Dr. Barlow didn’t stop there. She campaigned to change the public perception of injuries to inspire lasting, positive change.

“Injuries are not accidents. They’re preventable and they’re predictable,” she says. “But when we were growing up and when we started this work, everybody thinks that injuries are accidents, which means they’re not preventable, that they’re like acts of God.”

She also learned that physicians’ interests often reside in their own silos. Pediatricians shared her concerns. Doctors in other specialties did not.

“If I talked to pediatricians, they got it, because pediatrics is a protective specialty. They prevent infectious diseases - everything they do is prevention, preventative health, basically. And surgeons – I had one say ‘why would I want to prevent injuries? They're so much fun to operate on.’ They didn’t get it. I knew they were thinking ‘This is a really crazy woman. What is she talking about and why is this of interest to her?’”

Dr. Barlow ultimately became director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, a national network of physician-led, hospital-based programs in Level I pediatric trauma centers dedicated to preventing childhood injuries through education and environmental change.

“If you’re a doctor you give your time to this because you want to prevent the injuries, because they're so horrible,” she says. “I don't forget any children that died.”


This story is taken from the oral history of Barbara Barlow. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.

Alicia Lazzaro