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UCLA

Kid Friendly: Neal Halfon

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By Jack Feuer

Published Apr 1, 2007 8:00 AM


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Neal Halfon, director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities, is internationally recognized for his expertise in child health and human development. Halfon is a professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine, in the Department of Health Services in the School of Public Health, and in the Department of Public Policy in the School of Public Affairs. But this good doctor is not only a champion of healthy kids. He also produced the hit 1994 documentary Crumb, about the legendary counterculture cartoonist. Copyright © Juliane Backmann


How to Help Children Thrive

The UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities is helping to build early childhood systems initiatives in counties throughout California, with several other states, and increasingly with programs in Australia, Canada and England. To find out more about how to help families and communities support children's health and development, log on to their site. And check out Halfon's article in the March 2007 issue of Health Affairs, "Transforming the UC Child Health System."

Q. How does a leading health scientist get involved with a film about a hippie icon?

A. I was teaching at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, and I had many friends who were old-time string musicians. It was not uncommon for me to return home from a night on call at the hospital and find my living room filled with guys playing 1920s and 1930s string jazz and country music. One of those old friends is film director Terry Zwigoff. I jumped at the chance to help Terry by producing a documentary in 1989 about an eccentric Hawaiian family of musicians, the Moes. [That film has yet to be released.] Two years later, R. Crumb, a close friend of both Terry and myself, decided that he and his family would be decamping from Northern California to a small medieval village in Southern France. We both thought that was a great device to tell Crumb's traumatic story and to show how misaligned his values and views were with those of modern America.

Q. You have a lot of interests. Why become a doctor?

A. My father was a pharmacist, and my uncle was a doctor, but my real inspiration came when I was 8 years old and experienced the loss of my 4-year-old cousin, who did not survive the repair of his congenital heart defect. To deal with the incomprehensibility of his death and my own grief, I began dissecting calves' hearts my mother got for me from our local market and embarked on a lifelong journey in trying to understand as much as I could about how the body grows, develops and functions. My interest in developmental biology, coupled with my desire to do something to affect the diseases of social injustice, brought me to medicine and public health.

Q. And pediatrics?

A. My father demonstrated a great love for all children, not just his own, and frequently expressed his concern for how many kids were not receiving the investments they needed to thrive. He used to say, "It's all about the kids." When I started medical school, I found that I had a natural rapport with children. I have spent most of my career trying to understand how a child's social environment affects his health development and the realization of his health potential.

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