Dr. Joan Phillips: Woman of achievement, advocate of children and legacy of healing

Chicken pox, stomach viruses, booster shots, mono, countless ear infections, strep throat – these are just a few of the calamities Dr. Joan Phillips helped me through as a young scared-y cat. As my pediatrician, Dr. Phillips was one of the most skilled and kind women I’ve ever known. As a child advocate and co-medical director of the CAMC Children’s Advocacy Center, she has proven herself to be fearless, focused and unfailingly generous, helping thousands of children in our community.

Phillips was born and raised in the Elkins area. The oldest of seven children born to an Italian immigrant family, she grew up helping out in the family’s local store. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be a doctor, but feared she didn’t have the aptitude. When she began as an undergraduate at West Virginia University, she initially enrolled in the nursing program but was quickly encouraged to change her direction and thus pursued her degree in biology as a pre-med student.

In 1976, Phillips began medical school at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Her mother had always told her she would be a pediatrician and, as fate would have it, Phillips’ first rotation was in pediatrics and she knew she’d found her niche. “With pediatric patients, they have finite number of problems and you can usually fix them,” she said. “I felt like I had control.”

Despite the fact that she was one of only ten female students pursuing a career in the male-dominated field of medicine, Phillips said she never experienced discrimination from her male colleagues or teachers. After she began her residency, she did, however, begin to notice a difference in how female doctors and male doctors managed (or mismanaged) the work/life balance physicians so often face.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t love their families, but they missed out because they worked very long hours and they weren’t as involved in the home,” Phillips said. “I was very determined that I was going to be a doctor who was also involved at home and was present for my family.”

Phillips acknowledges her mentor, Dr. Barbara Morgan, for the role she played in helping her find her way as a mother and doctor early in her career. Morgan was a pediatric neurologist from Charleston who balanced a busy medical practice with an engaged home life. “She showed us it can be done and we could figure out our way to do it,” Phillips said.

And that she did. Between 1983 and 2005, Phillips managed a thriving pediatrics practice, served as an officer with the West Virginia American Academy of Pediatrics (WVAAP), and actively raised two daughters as a single parent following the death of her husband in 1987.

In the 1990s, she attended a conference that included information about child abuse and neglect. “I realized I didn’t know a lot about it and I wanted to learn more,” Phillips said. Starting in 1992, she began shadowing Dr. Kathleen Previll, who specialized in sexual abuse work. Phillips took it upon herself to begin to transition into taking over the work – working two days a month to cover cases.

“Nobody else wanted to do it and I saw the need was there,” Phillips said. “Some physicians may say ‘This broken bone could have been an accident but I’m not willing to say,’ and it was my belief that somebody needs to say it,” Phillips said. “Call this what it is – abuse.”

In 2005, Phillips retired her pediatric practice and shifted her professional focus to advocacy efforts for victims of child abuse and neglect. She played a principal role in opening the Children’s Advocacy Center at CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital. Since opening its doors in 2005, the center has provided evaluation and treatment to thousands of children from Kanawha and surrounding counties. In addition to interviews and medical evaluations, it offers compassionate, cognitive therapy to reduce the trauma often experienced by children that are victims of abuse, and families are never charged for services at the center. It’s been such an asset in the community that other programs throughout the United States have visited and modeled other advocacy centers after the one Dr. Phillips helped develop.

Serving as the co-medical director of the CAMC Children’s Advocacy Center, Phillips oversees sexual abuse cases, and also sees physical abuse cases in the hospital. Over the last 20 years, she’s also played an important role in expanding child advocacy efforts in West Virginia. Working closely with the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network, she has lent her time and expertise to build an infrastructure for helping kids in situations involving neglect and abuse across the state. There are now 21 child advocacy centers throughout West Virginia that are part of the network.

Prior to about ten years ago, a certified subspecialty in child abuse and neglect did not exist. However, since then, research has advanced and the subject has received significantly more attention. As soon as the American Board of Pediatrics established a subspecialty of child abuse and neglect in 2009, Phillips became the first pediatrician in West Virginia to receive the board certification.

Working with such dismal situations, Phillips relies on her life outside of work to keep her happy and healthy. Being close with her family, leaning on her strong faith, traveling and remaining physically active, she is able to gain perspective on her work and replenish her spirit. “You can’t give if your cup is empty,” she said.

“I’ve seen that the kids really need an advocate,” she said. “We see kids who are resilient and cases that have had closure for that family. They’re in therapy, justice was done and they’re headed into a healthier future. This was just one chapter and they have to write the rest of their book but hopefully it’s a more positive story.”

Dr. Phillips has helped countless children – from victims of abuse struggling in the darkest moments of their lives to young patients with a fever and sore throat. Regardless of the issue, her kind, skilled approach ensures that all the children receive compassionate care and are on their way to healing.

Phillips says she’s humbled by her nomination as a YWCA Woman of Achievement. “I’m very honored to be recognized, but I’m not finished yet. There’s still more work to be done.”