Frank J. Sileo, PhD, never imagined that a mainstay of his practice would be counseling children with chronic illnesses, especially gastrointestinal disorders.
"I began my practice not wanting to work with kids—I pictured them doing painting and clay work and making a mess in my office," chuckles the Ridgewood, N.J., practitioner, a self-admitted neat freak.
Yet fate had other plans. A range of factors—Sileo's own diagnosis with Crohn's disease in graduate school, a job at an inpatient facility for children and a spate of referrals to treat children with chronic illnesses—beckoned him to the path that is now his passion.
"Sometimes the niche calls out to you," says Sileo, whose practice includes about 40 percent young people with Crohn's disease and other chronic illnesses. "I've fallen in love with the ability to connect with these kids and their families, to try and reach them at a young age and make an impact."
Since finding his calling, Sileo has poured his energy into educating people about the psychological needs of children with chronic disease, which can include dealing with depression, anger and embarrassment; educating family members, teachers, doctors and peers about what it's like to live with an illness; and finding ways to cope with the practical problems that often arise. With Crohn's disease, for instance, kids frequently experience physical pain and discomfort, must go to the bathroom at unexpected times and sometimes face surgery.
To spread understanding about these conditions, Sileo has traveled the country speaking for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, giving presentations to physicians, social workers, parents, teachers and children on the psychological aspects of these illnesses. He also has appeared on Webcasts and radio programs to talk about Crohn's disease, and has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues.
One of Sileo's biggest sources of pride is two children's books that he wrote. The first, "Toilet Paper Flowers" (2006: Health Press NA, Inc.) features a girl with Crohn's disease who explains her condition to a friend and makes toilet paper flowers to express her hope for a cure. The second, "Hold the Cheese Please!" (2008: Health Press NA, Inc.) addresses the challenges of a boy with lactose intolerance, including being bullied about his diet. They are the only children's books written on these topics, and use intriguing story lines and children's perspectives to make their points (see www.healthpress.com).
"I'm hoping the books validate these kids' thoughts and feelings and let them know there are people out there who are willing to talk about these things in a safe way," Sileo says.
His work demonstrates the benefits of heading out of the office and reaching out to a larger community, says David Ballard, PsyD, MBA, APA's assistant executive director for corporate relations and business strategy.
"By building public speaking and a comprehensive use of the media into his professional activities, Dr. Sileo is reaching more people, helping them make better-informed health decisions, and at the same time is enhancing his visibility and credibility as an expert," Ballard says. "It's a win-win."
How to reach out
These public outreach successes required extensive planning, effort and a certain amount of risk-taking, says Sileo. Here's how he promoted his services and how you can, too:
• Take the long view. Crohn's disease and other gastrointestinal problems were not an easy sell. "Diseases of the gut are embarrassing and uncomfortable, and nobody wants to talk about them," he says.
But persistence paid off, Sileo says: "When the media said the subject wasn't sexy enough, that didn't stop me from promoting and talking about it anyway." Eventually, you'll break through, says Sileo, who regularly pitches venues that are realistically in his reach, such as local media outlets, but also loftier ones, like "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
• Target medical professionals. Sileo books plenty of talks at hospitals and medical centers because physicians and nurses often have a lot to learn about how psychologists can help people with medical disorders, Sileo says. When he's talking to gastroenterologists, for instance, he spells out potential scenarios for psychological referral, like a young child who is anxious about a colonoscopy, or parents who are having trouble accepting that their child has a chronic illness.
• Make 'em laugh. Sileo enjoys performing: He acted while in high school, and he now deploys that talent to make potentially heavy topics more palatable.
"Be lively when you speak," he urges. "Don't just talk about statistics and research—people want to know about practical stuff." In his work, that means talking to Crohn's patients about how to cope with the anxiety of having to go to the bathroom when there are no public restrooms nearby, or for kids with chronic illnesses, when and how to tell their friends about their condition.
• Use your imagination. For Sileo, creativity is the talented sister of persistence. "I spend a lot of my extra time thinking of ways to reach other audiences," he says. He is now hatching a plan to meet with school superintendents about speaking at schools, for example, and he's constantly drumming up new places to pitch his books. In one recent effort, he contacted companies that manufacture lactose-free products in hopes of getting them to include the books in their advertising.
"Frank takes a lot of steps that many authors don't, which makes my job a lot easier," says his book publisher Kathleen Frazier, who heads Health Press NA, Inc. "While a lot of authors are good at promoting themselves, Frank is exceptional, because he really believes in the importance of helping kids with these issues."
• Get a Web site. Don't miss the opportunity to market yourself online, Sileo says. When designing your site, present your information in a way that is easy to navigate and shows your values and style. His Web site includes his areas of expertise, links to his media appearances and helpful resources, all presented in a clear, attractive format www.drfranksileo.com.
• Be genuine. Your best-laid efforts will fail if you're not true to yourself and your patients, Sileo emphasizes. To this end, he made an early decision to tell patients he has Crohn's disease—which frees them to talk about the nitty gritty of their illnesses—and he includes that information in his book introductions as well.
In fact, that kind of sharing is an integral part of his work, Sileo believes.
"That part of my mission—to tell people, 'You know what? I'm a doctor and I have this disease,'" he says. "'And you know what? I can talk about it, and we can also laugh about it sometimes.' My desire, my hope, is to let people know they can talk about this without feeling shame."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
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