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Community healer

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Dr. Peter J. Morris wins Rex health award for helping Wake’s needy children.

By Jennifer Whytock

RALEIGH, N.C. — For dedicating his entire pediatric career to helping underserved children and communities both as a physician and administrator, Dr. Peter J. Morris recently received the first Hands of Health award from the John Rex Endowment.

Morris has spent the last 18 years at Wake County Human Services, currently as medical director, and previously worked in the Child Health Clinics both for Wake County and at WakeMed, and served on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

After beginning his career as a pediatric physician in rural Appalachia, Morris wanted to broaden his scope beyond treating just individuals.

“You couldn’t care for the child without caring for the family, and couldn’t care for the family without caring for the community,” he says. “I practice medicine each and every day by caring for a community, more so than caring for an individual child or family.”

While many fellow physicians avoided the administrative side of medicine and preferred to remain in private practice, he says, he felt a need to serve the community as a whole and address larger medical issues.

Dr. Peter Morris

Job: Medical director, Wake County Human Services

Born: 1952, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Family: Wife, Sara Smith; daughter, 23.

Education: Undergraduate degree, history, Georgetown University; M.D. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; master’s degree, public health, UNC-CH.

Hobbies: Playing guitar, reading nonfiction

Books to recommend: Series of four detective books about Thursday Next, by Jasper Fforde.

Faced with the recent “health outcome data on Wake County”, for example, Morris asked the Human Services board: “What should it challenge us to do, where one in 10 children are uninsured, where one in five have visibly rotting teeth, and where black babies are three times more likely to die in their first year than white babies?”

One weekend a month, Morris hones his clinical skills as an attending physician at WakeMed, which he says helps root him by seeing first-hand a child and family in crisis.

He enjoys having the chance to work alongside fellow physicians, in a collegial and training atmosphere, where he can give advice on child-services questions and can feel free to ask for clinical advice when he is unsure about something.

“Starting on Friday, I ask myself do I remember how to do this?, then on Saturday I say I remember how to do this, and by Sunday I’m saying I know why I don’t do this anymore.”

For the past five years, Morris has spent most of his free time taking classes at the Divinity School at Duke University, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in divinity.

He wants to apply what he learns to making a connection between public policy and the moral and ethical motivations that he believes should drive people’s actions, and to understanding how members of a community can care for one another physically and spiritually.

In his remaining spare time, Morris enjoys having quiet dinners with his wife, Sara Smith, who does clinical social work in geropsychology, and with his three Tonkinese cats and two Dachshunds.

He also likes playing folk and blues guitar, occasionally picking up one of the 21 guitars he has on display at his house.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Morris has lived in North Carolina for 30 years.

He helped set up Wake County’s original application for Smart Start, the public-private early-childhood-education program, and has been involved ever since, currently serving on the group’s board.

Morris also serves as president of the North Carolina Pediatric Society, and plans to give the $10,000 prize from the Hands of Health award to the society’s foundation.

Armed with his divinity school studies and seeing first-hand the needs in Wake County, Morris wants to challenge everyone in the community to truly love their neighbor as themselves, asking, “How can we be successful if any of us is left behind?”

The community needs to treat tuberculosis among the homeless to protect the entire community from TB, he says, to prevent low-birth-weight babies so all children in the community have an equal opportunity to learn, and to treat women’s health so all young women can have the choice to stay in school and parent their children when they are best able.

“When the least of us fails,” he says, “all of us are harmed.”

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