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HOLMBERG: Richmond schools leads the way in health testing

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)–Richmond Public Schools is finishing up a pilot program designed to give free health check-ups for middle schoolers to make sure they don’t have physical problems that could impact their long-term health and their ability to learn.

“It’s only here – this is us,” said longtime Richmond activist and reformer Paul Goldman. “First in the nation. We’re doing something that’s not being done anywhere,” he said.

It looks like about 200 students have been checked this first time out, a number many believe to have far exceeded expectations.

“Nationwide, there’s a trend for children and adolescents to not get annual exams,” explained Dr. David Friedel, one of the many volunteer doctors who participated.  “As part of this initiative, we’re trying to reach out and help meet an unmet need.”

Only about 20 percent of children in this country are getting annual health checks that could save their lives and identify problems that might keep them from learning, such as sleep problems, hypertension, visual or hearing problems, Goldman explained.

The screenings, which required parental consent, are not invasive – no blood or other fluids tested.

“We look for abnormalities,” said Dr. Meredith Hellstern with MCV Pediatrics. “We look for things you might not be able to see with the naked eye, looking in the eyes, in the ears, in the mouth to see if there’s anything we can seem using our stethoscopes to listen to the heart and lungs and the bellies. And so we can use those tools we have as physicians to see if we can identify anything the kids need taken care of.”

“We found a lot of individuals with borderline high blood pressure,” Dr. Friedel said. “We found a number of heart murmurs” most of them minor but “a couple we referred on to see a heart specialist or cardiologist.”

They also found a number of students with vision problems, some of them who knew they needed glasses but didn’t have them or don’t use them.

“We’re detecting and finding things that we never really knew about the children,” said Albert Hill Middle School nurse Jacqueline Williams. “So this is a great preventative tool.”

The effort is supported by the school systems’ leadership and is fueled by volunteer medical professionals and bankrolled by private companies and individuals, including politicians like George Allen, Tim Kaine and even some city council members, like Bruce Tyler. Even the Richmond Flying Squirrels stepped up to the plate.

“If his community comes together,” Goldman said, “we can be the first – the first in the nation – to make sure all of our school kids, following this model, have an annual exam. Nobody in the country would even be close to us.”

On Tuesday morning, Richmond Public Schools will host its first “Fit For Life” fitness challenge at the Sports Backers Stadium for those students who got the check-ups. They’ll compete for gift cards, part of the incentives designed to get children and their parents to participate.

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