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He Uses Thursdays to Bust Stereotypes (Boston Globe)

By Keith O'Brien, Globe Correspondent | July 11, 2005

Originally published: 7/2005

He has an award and a disease named after him. He has a medical textbook under his belt. And he is old enough to have been friends with Dr. Sidney Farber -- the Farber of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. So if Dr. Allen Crocker wanted to retire from medicine on the eve of his 80th birthday, no one could blame him.

But the mere mention of retirement will earn you a long look from the good doctor. Crocker still has work to do, another edition of the textbook to finish, and patients. Lots of patients. Perhaps most importantly, if he retired from developmental pediatrics -- gave up working with children with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities -- he would miss his favorite day of the week.

He would miss Thursdays -- the day of the Down syndrome clinic at Children's Hospital, the day, Crocker says, of great fun.

''Everyone is here," Angela Lombardo, the program coordinator, told Crocker one recent Thursday morning. ''All the kids are here."

Crocker sat down in an unremarkable examining room, and opened the first patient file of the day.

Stereotypes dictate that this would be depressing, that the parents would be overwhelmed and the children ''different." Crocker knows all about the stereotypes. And the families do, too. In the beginning, stereotypes were all most knew.

But then they met Crocker, and things changed.

''I remember the first time I met him, how comfortable he made me feel," said Kim Daly, whose daughter, Ava, was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth two years ago. ''He was just very warm and encouraging, telling me that having a baby with Down syndrome was going to bring a lot of happiness to my life. He was right."

There is still a stigma attached to children born with Down syndrome. Mothers recall hearing nurses whispering about their children or how they themselves cried for days. But that's nothing compared to what Crocker saw 50 years ago.

''They were not full citizens," Crocker said of that time. ''Their classrooms were in the basement, next to the heating system. And in terms of budgeting and personnel and so forth, they were not viewed compassionately, except by a few pioneering individuals."

Crocker considered himself lucky to have worked with one such doctor, Sidney Farber. Together they studied diseases ignored by others, such as Niemann-Pick, a rare, fatal genetic disorder that slowly robs children of mental and physical capabilities. In time, Niemann-Pick would become known in some circles as Crocker's syndrome, a sign of how much work he did to understand its crippling symptoms.

It wasn't just the science that appealed to him, Crocker said. It was also the opportunity to speed social reforms by explaining the inexplicable or humanizing that which was perceived to be inhuman. This work won him support among his colleagues. Dr. William Carey, director of behavioral pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and one of Crocker's co-authors on the textbook, said Crocker has become a ''real master" of the science behind developmental problems.

His patients' families, however, know him most for his compassion, his genuine belief that these children are ''remarkable humans." And so they smile when they meet him, and he smiles back.

On that recent Thursday, he called Ava Daly ''a lovely little girl." He told Christine Harrison to be proud of the way she is raising her daughter, Katie, 3, because as he said, ''You have given her peace and warmth." And when it was time to see his third patient, 8-month-old Ella Doherty, he stepped back and told her parents, ''You've got a damn beauty."

Gia and Fintan Doherty left Crocker's office, all smiles. But it was the doctor who seemed to be having the most fun. It was, after all, a Thursday.

FACT SHEET

Home: A Boston native, now living in Natick

Education: Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1944 with a degree in biology, and from Harvard Medical School in 1948.

Family: Met his wife, Marga, in Germany, while serving in the US Army after World War II. They were married 52 years ago, had three children, and now have nine grandchildren. He says these days of his marriage: ''I think it's going to last."

A bug doctor: That's what Crocker wanted to be. ''My first choice was entomology," he said. ''I thought insects were cool." But the son of a research chemist, he went into medicine and specifically developmental pediatrics because he said it combined scientific medicine and social need.

His book: ''Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics" was first published in 1983 after he and several other doctors collaborated on the 1,200-page tome. It is now being updated for a fourth edition.

His poetry: He may be a scientist, but he's also known as a poet -- or at least for quoting poetry in speeches and journal articles. He also once helped a woman with Down syndrome publish a book of poetry. ''They're wonderful kids," he said of his patients. ''In the old days, the birth of a child with Down syndrome was commonly regarded in our culture with disappointment. That has been to a considerable degree put aside and now these children are celebrated. So we have great fun on Thursdays."

His science: Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by a chromosomal abnormality that affects roughly one in 1,000 children. These children look different than their peers, likely have some mental disabilities, and often have heart disease and other ailments. Decades ago, the life expectancy of such a child was nine years. Today, children with Down syndrome are expected to live well into their 50s and have mental capabilities far exceeding what experts once thought.

(c) 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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