When Amy Porter began her career as a pediatrician some 20 years ago, it was rare to see children whose weight posed a threat to their health and well-being. But by the late 1990s, the La Cañada resident began to notice children were presenting health problems typically seen only in adults — high blood pressure, diabetes and even weak knee joints. Today, 20% to 30% of all her patients are overweight or obese.
“After you get a certain number of them, you can’t just send them to a specialist. You need to know what to do,” she says.
That’s when Porter, who worked at Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park, became part of an effort to prevent juvenile diabetes throughout Southern California. When she wasn’t seeing patients, she was helping lead awareness campaigns designed to help professionals identify, track and advise at-risk children. Today, she is the lead physician in Kaiser’s Pediatric Weight Management program.
For nearly a decade, Porter has worked passionately to raise prevention and awareness among patients and their families. This summer, her work as a physician on the California Freshworks Fund — a project that has raised $200 million to create fresh-food options in underserved communities — earned her an invitation to the White House from First Lady Michelle Obama. She recalls the July visit as a highlight of her career.
The meeting was part of Obama’s own Let’s Move! campaign, a nationwide program that aims to significantly diminish childhood obesity within a single generation. Porter says she had no idea the visit would include a face-to-face meeting with Obama herself.
“They wanted a physician to represent Kaiser, and because I’d worked with some of these programs, I got invited to go,” Porter says. “When I was in the White House, there was an intern with a list calling out names. She said ‘Dr. Porter.’ As it turns out, these were the people who were actually going to meet [the first lady].”
Porter sat in the front row of chairs as Obama addressed the crowd of 20 people. She took pictures with her cell phone to send to her son Gorin, 22, and 21-year-old daughter Katie. She didn’t know then she would receive an official White House photo of her and the First Lady to commemorate the occasion.
Although the trip was an unforgettable moment in Porter’s professional life, her work has touched the lives of countless Kaiser patients.
In addition to working on several community-focused health programs, Porter helped create a system for tracking children’s Body Mass Index (BMI) information. Next to the names of at-risk kids, a yellow alert box pops up on the computer screen and makes recommendations that aid patients who may not have access to a specialist.
In the fight against obesity, the health community is working against a dynamic set of conditions that contribute to poor health in children, and Porter knows that what happens after the doctor’s appointment plays a large role in determining health outcomes.
“The 10 minutes they spend with me is fine, but the rest of their lives, they’re seeing things I don’t want them to see and living things I don’t want them to,” she says. “We need a world where kids can live healthy. And, while people are working on that, you just don’t have that now.”
Diana Rivera-Beltran, a program manager for Kaiser’s Educational Outreach Program, recruited Porter to work on the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) program, a community initiative in Baldwin Park that addressed childhood obesity prevention. There she witnessed Porter’s engagement with patients firsthand.
“Dr. Porter is amazing,” Rivera-Beltran says. “She knows that physicians don’t have all the answers and that working with residents and teens to make changes in their environment is essential to preventing obesity.”
Loel Solomon, Kaiser’s vice president of Community Health, works to develop and support Kaiser’s partnership with national health movements like Let’s Move! Solomon worked closely with Porter on HEAL and says Porter embodies Kaiser’s belief that health education needs to reach beyond a doctor’s appointment to the child’s home environment.
“Her passion and her deep understanding about the need to change that environment — and the powerful way she uses her knowledge and expertise to advocate for those changes — are an inspiration,” he says.
Meanwhile, despite the recent recognition, Porter sees her mission as a simple one.
“My patients are beautiful and capable and wonderful kids, and they can be anything they want in the world,” she says. “But what they can’t be, if they stay at that weight, is healthy; and it’s my job to keep them healthy.”