Parenting in Practice: Dr. Heather Larson Takes a Holistic Approach to Pediatric Care
Big-picture thinking may be a quality associated with business investors and tycoons, but talk to Heather Larson, M.D., F.A.A.P. and it’s clear that it’s just as useful in your child’s pediatrician. From choosing general pediatrics over a specialty to recognizing there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to pediatric care, Dr. Larson brings a collaborative, customized approach to each patient. And that personal touch also happens to be what Dr. Larson likes best about her job.
“What I love is getting to know my families and helping them navigate their own journey through parenthood,” she explains. “It’s kind of like going to work and seeing your friends. You go through so much with these families that you really do build close bonds. Every family is so unique.”
A PASSION FOR PEDIATRICS
Dr. Larson joined Pediatric Associates of the Northwest (PANW) in August 2019, but her fascination with the field stretches back to her toddler years. As the youngest of four children raised in Atlanta, Dr. Larson can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a pediatrician. You read that right. She didn’t just want to be a “doctor”. She specifically wanted to be a pediatrician.
Her intentionality may have something to do with the frequent trips she made to her own pediatrician with recurring ear infections and strep. “None of it was serious, per se,” she recalls of her childhood illnesses, “but it probably affected me subconsciously.”
After graduating medical school at Emory University and completing her residency at New York University, Larson was recruited to Portland by Legacy Health. She spent the next five years focusing primarily on newborn care in the Labor and Delivery unit of the hospital, an experience that taught her a lot about the spectrum of parenthood experiences. Breastfeeding, for example, may come easily for some but others may experience common challenges.
The birth experience is equally varied, Dr. Larson notes. For parents who approach giving birth with a more flexible plan, the process is generally a positive one. But for those who have a more fixed birth plan or those who experience unexpected complications, labor and delivery can be traumatic. “It really opened my eyes to the process,” she explains. “I realized the importance of monitoring how the family unit is doing rather than just examining the baby.”
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
This awareness—that a healthy family dynamic is as influential to a child’s well-being as eating and sleeping—only expanded with the arrival of Dr. Larson’s own daughter, Madeline, in May 2019. “I thought I would transition easily back to work,” Dr. Larson laughs. “Finding that balance has been a challenge.”
Not only was Dr. Larson returning to a full-time job, but she ended up changing jobs in order to join the team at PANW when Madeline was just 3 months old. This change enabled Dr. Larson to return to what she loves best (general pediatrics over specialized care) while also providing a better work-life balance. And, Dr. Larson adds, PANW has “a good group of docs.”
Even so, putting the theory of parenthood into practice hasn’t been without its bumps. On Dr. Larson’s first day of seeing patients, she found herself accidentally locked in an exam room while she was pumping milk. She was able to have a good laugh afterwards and figured it was a perfect reflection of how unpredictable life can be as a parent. She’s also had to learn how to divide and conquer when it comes to getting home in time to see her daughter before bed. The trick for her, she explains, is to prioritize patient care and phone calls before leaving the office and then tackling paperwork after her daughter’s bedtime.
When Dr. Larson isn’t juggling work and family commitments, she’s usually outside exploring. (Big-picture thinkers, after all, need expanded horizons.) She and her husband have traveled throughout Eastern Europe, and even got married in Italy, in “a tiny town with 18 people.” Italy, in fact, holds a special place in her heart thanks to its culture, its scenery, and its wine. “We found a couple places in Italy where you go, ‘Wine?’ And they reply, ‘No. It’s grapes and yeast,’” Dr. Larson marvels.
Her sense of adventure, combined with her love of cooking, means you are as likely to find Dr. Larson visiting local wineries as hiking Dog Mountain when she’s at home in Oregon. And it’s this determination to experience life to its fullest that drives her open-minded, big-picture approach to both patient care and life in general. She believes in supporting her families in reaching their desired physical and mental health goals for today but also their goals for the future as patients grow into young adults.
SIDEBAR: ASK DR. LARSON!
Dr. Larson loves working with families to enhance their parenthood experience. After years of private practice and newborn specialty care, Dr. Larson shares her hard-earned wisdom on navigating parenthood’s biggest challenges.
1. Most surprising lesson of parenthood: “Recognizing there’s a huge gray area on what works. Pre-baby, I was very much, ‘Okay, you do this method for sleep training,’ for example. I thought I would be just one way. It’s NOT one way! It’s pulling a little bit from this method; it’s pulling a little bit from that method. The reality really hit home that the pediatrician relationship is a collaborative effort.”
2. Biggest challenge facing parents: “I really think, for all parents, it’s balancing the technology aspect of life. We’ve kind of turned into a must-answer-this-email-now society, and it doesn’t have to be that way.” Do your work, she advises, but when you get home, leave your phone at the door. Kids need attention—it drives resilience and healthy development—so it’s important to be able to focus on them at regular intervals.
3. Most pressing need in pediatric care today: “Vaccines. We’re seeing illnesses appear that were almost gone…I really try to work with families to answer their questions and come up with a vaccination plan that they are comfortable with.”
4. Best way to help older children: “It’s important to normalize failure. It can build resilience to fail and then explore what we can do differently to succeed.”
5. Favorite parenting books: Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish