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Local doctor is 'Health Care Hero'

Dr. Paula Gustafson, longtime Shelbyville pediatrician, is a 2018 “Health Care Hero,” chosen for the honor by the Indianapolis Business Journal.

By JOHN WALKER - jwalker@shelbynews.com

She can tune up children’s health, and possibly tune up their parents’ cars too.

Dr. Paula Gustafson began her career as an engineer. With a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she went to work for Cummins Inc.

She also went to work on a family. After 10 years at Cummins, by then married with four children, and one on the way, Gustafson decided pediatrics – childhood medicine – was her calling.

Now, after 21 years as a pediatrician in Shelbyville, the Indianapolis Business Journal has named Gustafson a 2018 Health Care Hero.

She had to be convinced.

“When I got the email and saw the subject line, I thought it was a joke,” said Gustafson, 63.

After some checking, she decided the email wasn’t a ransomware trick.

One of her colleagues at Major Health Partners where she practices submitted her name for the award, she said, and apparently many people were in on the surprise.

“None of my kids leaked it,” she said.

With five children of her own, pediatrics seemed like a natural fit, and she really enjoys talking to parents; she can relate to their challenges, Gustafson said.

But now, after two decades, have kids changed much?

“Children have changed a lot,” said Gustafson, a native of Michigan.

It used to be that, by the age of 18, kids were ready for the “Three E’s – enlisting, enrolling or employment.” Now, they enter the “gap years” before committing to a course in life, Gustafson said.

“I have to think the internet and the digital world is contributing to that,” she said.

Kids are inundated with online information which makes it hard to decide what to do in life; they’re not ready to launch at age 18 and some lack the confidence and social skills needed to go out on their own, said Gustafson.

Plus the social stigma about still living at home as a young adult is not prevalent like it used to be, she added.

Are kids physically healthier than they used to be?

“If you take into account obesity, the answer is no. That’s a driver of long-term health problems,” said Gustafson, who last week had the “great honor” to participate in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., on childhood obesity.

Pediatricians are seeing an increase in autoimmune diseases and cancers as a result, she said, noting that today’s kids are the first generation who are predicted not to live as long as their parents. 

Drug abuse and mental health problems are also concerns, along with the rise of social media.

“It’s all intertwined,” said Gustafson.

Her best advice to new parents, and parents-to-be, is live healthy before having children, and be aware of how important the first five years of a child’s life are. 

Seventy-five percent of a child’s brain has developed by age 3, and 95 percent has developed by age 5, Gustafson said.

Which is why she’s one of the founders of the new Early Learning Shelby County, a local initiative to create a childhood education program for youngsters in those developmental years and their families.

“It’s very critical,” said Gustafson, adding that in her new role as chief medical officer at Major Health Partners, early childhood health will be a top priority.