In medical school, Karen Olness wanted to specialize in nephrology. But instead of researching kidneys, Olness—a professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine since 1987—has become an international leader in developmental behavioral pediatrics, infectious diseases in children and pediatric disaster relief.
Most recently, Olness was chosen for the university’s 2014 Frank and Dorothy Hummel Hovorka Prize—an honor to be presented at commencement on May 18. Given to those who have made extraordinary contributions to their academic field and to Case Western Reserve, the award is considered one of the highest forms of recognition a faculty member can receive.
“I know people who have received this award before,” Olness said. “I really never thought I might be one of them.”
But Olness, like her distinguished predecessors, has been on the front lines of medical innovation throughout her career. She was among the earliest researchers to study and publish on pediatric pain management through hypnosis and biofeedback. She founded the Rainbow Center for Global Child Health at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, and has battled serious pediatric infections and diseases throughout the world.
In fact, she recalled that some of her first breakthrough findings—that children could voluntarily raise and lower their heart rates and the temperature of their fingertips—were met with scorn.
“I was at a faculty picnic,” she said, her voice warming slightly at the memory. “I was telling a colleague about the results because I was so excited, but he looked right at me and said ‘I wouldn’t believe that even if I saw it.’”
But Olness didn’t let skepticism stop her. Among many demonstrable effects, she and her team showed that children could voluntarily change immune substances in their saliva and how hypnosis could be effective in pediatric pain management, from migraines to chemotherapy. Olness was lead author on Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy in Children, now in its fourth edition and still considered a foundation for pediatric hypnosis, now a thriving medical discipline.
After many experiences working in refugee camps and disaster management situations, Olness said she experienced an “aha” moment in 1994.
She and several colleagues were volunteering in a Rwandan refugee camp. Though initially pleased that much of the materials and logistics of disaster management and refugee camps had improved over the years, she quickly stumbled on what she considered an extraordinary and dangerous oversight: Preschool children were only being fed one meal per day.
With more than 10,000 orphans in the camp, that was a serious problem.
“It was ridiculous,” she explained, “and scary. You can’t just feed a 2-year-old child once per day. ”
But when she complained to the United Nations agency responsible for the refugee camp, she was told the nutritional needs of each person and child had been calculated down to the required calories—that no one was being underfed.
So Olness and a Rwandan refugee pediatrician conducted a sweeping nutritional survey to prove their point. When they presented the evidence of rampant malnutrition among children, the feeding procedures were revamped in the camp.
This experience led Olness to organize an annual workshop at Case Western Reserve focusing on the special needs of children in disasters. This workshop, which also has been held in 17 resource-poor countries, is now in its 18th year.
Olness credits her success to others, especially her husband of 52 years and the hundreds of colleagues and students at CWRU and worldwide who have volunteered in global child-health programs.
“Ninety percent of children are born into resource-poor areas of the world,” she said. “These efforts to improve their health doesn’t just effect the individual children, but it also has positive implications for their families, communities and the entire world.”