Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58
Wil Blechman, M’57, H’58, wants to talk about babies.
In fact, advocating for the world’s youngest citizens — those under the age of 5 — has been his consuming focus since retiring from his medical practice in 1994. And on April 27, he was honored for this work as the 2018 alumni inductee — and keynote speaker — at the School of Medicine’s Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society annual banquet and induction ceremony.
During his more-than-30-year career as a rheumatologist mostly focused on older adults, Blechman acknowledges, the developmental needs of young children were far from his professional concern.
In 1990, however, he assumed the role of president for Kiwanis International and in that position helped the organization select the focus for a new charitable initiative. Consultation with a wide range of experts led Blechman and the Kiwanis to understand the vital importance of the early-childhood years for brain development and lifelong health, well-being and success — and thus was born what would become Kiwanis International’s now-longstanding worldwide service program: Young Children Priority One. It was also the start of Blechman’s “second career,” as he sometimes refers to it, as an advocate on behalf of young children. Since that time, he has played an active role in a number of charitable and public organizations concerned with the well-being of young children.
At the AOA banquet, Blechman, sporting his signature bow tie, spoke to the gathering about the essential role that environment plays in early childhood. During this period, he explained, the brain undergoes tremendous growth, building neural connections at an astonishing rate. But in this time the brain is also uniquely affected — for good or for ill — by environment and experience. “There is tremendous input from the environment in the first few years of life,” he says.
Significantly, chronic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, family instability and exposure to violence or substance-use disorders can cause lasting harm to developing brains. That carries consequences for learning and behavior as well as mental and physical health that can reach across the lifespan. Children living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to being exposed to such adverse childhood experiences.
“There are communities in which you go 20 blocks and there is 10 years’ difference in life expectancy because of the difference of income in those 20 blocks,” Blechman says.
However, early intervention can make a difference — and the earlier, the better. “‘Zero to three’ is where it starts,” says Blechman, referencing the national nonprofit organization that operates under that name.
During this period of rapid brain development, providing resources — such as high-quality early childhood education or parenting support programs — that foster healthy development can help offset the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences. Yet, pointing out that “in too many cases, we wait too long,” he called upon his audience to make this cause their own. “Let the legacy of this group be of activism for early childhood,” he concluded, “and we will all be better off for it.”
Blechman’s call to action was appropriately in the spirit of the occasion of the Alpha Omega Alpha induction ceremony. Founded in 1902, AOA is the only medical school honor society worldwide and seeks to recognize and perpetuate excellence in the medical profession. Membership in the society “confers recognition for a physician’s dedication to the profession and art of healing” that Blechman’s work has personified.
In addition to Blechman, 14 members of the medical school’s Class of 2018 and 19 members of the Class of 2019 were inducted into the School of Medicine’s Brown Sequard chapter of AOA, along with faculty members Gautham Kalahasty, M.D., and Vikram Brar, M’03, H’07, as well as housestaff Chris Young, M’16, Avinash Pillutla, M’15, and Hiba Alam, M.D.
By Caroline Kettlewell