Alumni Profile: Sandra Hassink, M.D., FAAP, ‘78

From the Summer 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

AAP President Dedicates Career to Childhood Obesity

 

Photo by Barbara Proud
Photo by Barbara Proud

Sandra Hassink, M.D., FAAP, ‘78, was a trailblazer in treating childhood/teenage obesity, starting a weight management clinic in 1988 at Alfred I. duPont Children’s Hospital, well before most pediatricians even realized there was an issue to address. Today, childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels plaguing the youngest generations.

“In those days, childhood obesity was not on anyone’s radar screen. I was seeing children and adolescents with obesity who were not well, and they wanted to lose weight,” said Hassink, who currently serves as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a role she assumed in January. “There had been no focus on weight issues in medical school. So, I began a journey of trying to find ways I could help engage nutrition and exercise folks. At first, it began as a couple days of clinic a week, and then eventually I built it to be a full-time, five-day-a-week clinic. I’ve dedicated my entire professional life to taking care of children with obesity.”

Hassink recalls a snowy day when she drove to a give a Grand Rounds lecture to find only three people present for her talk. “Obesity was unusual at that time. The epidemic hadn’t taken hold then, and I don’t think people realized what was coming. Unfortunately, today 30 percent of children and adolescents are obese or are overweight,” she said.

No single cause is to blame for the epidemic, she says, noting a host of reasons that contributed, including sugary drinks, processed foods, less physical activity, more sedentary time, reduced recess and physical education, screen time, lack of access to healthy foods, among others.

As an undergraduate majoring in chemistry at the University of Delaware, Hassink wanted to combine her love for science with a people-oriented profession, leading her to medicine. When her husband, Bill Hassink, got a job at the Old Hickory, Tennessee, plant for DuPont, she applied to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where she was one of 14 women in her graduating class.

Looking back on medical school, she said Harry Greene, M.D., former chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology/Nutrition, had an influence on her career. “Certainly having that exposure to having someone so committed to pediatric nutrition had an impact,” Hassink said.

In the almost 30 years since she founded the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Weight Management Clinic, she has become an internationally recognized expert in childhood obesity prevention, testifying before Congress and serving as chair of the Delaware Governor’s council on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and directing the AAP Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight. Before becoming AAP president, she served as president of the AAP Delaware Chapter; a member of the AAP Board of Directors; chaired the AAP Obesity Leadership Workgroup, the AAP Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight Advisory Committee, and the AAP Strategic Planning Committee. She authored numerous articles for parents and pediatricians and two books: “Pediatric Obesity: Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment Strategies for Primary Care” and “A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Weight Management.”