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One On 1: Dr. Irwin Redlener Helps Heal The City's Health Care

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For more than 20 years, Dr. Irwin Redlener and the Children's Health Fund have helped provide health care for kids and families who otherwise could not afford it. That reality stems from a moment he experienced almost 40 years ago. NY1's Budd Mishkin explains the following One on 1 report.

Can a poster change a life? Irwin Redlener was a pediatric resident at a hospital in Denver in 1970, on the path to becoming a children's heart specialist, when he saw a poster asking doctors to come serve poor people in Arkansas.

"There was something, I don't know how to describe it other than absolutely compelling and romantic about this vision of somebody going to a place, obviously in need, and practicing what they had learned to do," says Redlener.

Redlener immediately said goodbye to the residency and hello to Lee County, Arkansas.

So began a life in health care, with a specialty in serving kids around the world. He is best known here for co-founding, along with friend Paul Simon, the Children's Health Fund, an organization that serves more than 10,000 patients a year.

The organization runs two health centers in the South Bronx and one in Harlem, along with six mobile medical clinics that visit 13 homeless shelters and youth drop-in centers around the city on a weekly basis.

"We have basically taken the entire pediatric office and put it on wheels so we can take it with us," Redlener explains. "It's like a highly-mechanized, highly-developed house call. All the medical records of the kids we're seeing are on the computer, so if they move from one shelter to another shelter, we're able to track them and we have their immunization records, what chronic illnesses they have, what medications they're on and so forth. It's a critical part of the type of health care we think it's important for kids to get."

Redlener first met musician Paul Simon when both were involved in the mid-1980s in USA for Africa, the charity that oversaw proceeds from the song "We Are the World." Simon suggested that they do something for homeless families in New York.

Together they visited shelters and welfare hotels, like the old Martinique Hotel at 32nd and Broadway.

"We were speechless; it was a horrible, squalid old building, absolutely teeming with poor children and their families," recalls Redlener. "There were kids and moms everywhere."

Redlener says 20 years later, part of the battle is dealing with what he calls "issue fatigue."

"When we started the program in 1987, there were on average 13,000 children in the homeless shelter system on any given day," he says. "Now there are almost 18,000, so the problem is actually worse than it was, but you don't see it on the front pages anymore. People are tired of it. They think it's resolved or they're moved on to the next issue du jour, and that really is a problem."

Ever since Redlener went to Arkansas, there hasn't been much separation between his work life and his home life. His wife Karen is the Fund's executive director. The two have worked together for 37 years.

"We have very complimentary skills and abilities," says Redlener. "She's great with people, she's a wonderful organizational leader, she's detail oriented and she gets things done. And they call me 'the visionary,' not in a polite way."

The Redleners have often worked on children in difficult circumstances. And they have known their own sorrow.

In 1999, one of their four children, 28-year-old son Jason Redlener was killed in a snowboarding accident.

"My son's loss really threw us for a loop and to this day it's just difficult to kind of put that in some kind of context that makes sense to us," says Redlener. "It doesn't make any sense at all actually, so one of the mitigating factors is our first grandchild was born a year after Jason died and it was so complicated emotionally to hold this baby and to think about the loss of Jason; it was just really just incredible."

Growing up in the 60s, Redlener had his period of youthful rebelion - with a twist.

His father was a World War II vet who became an anti-war activist. The son responded by applying to West Point Military Academy.

"In fact, I had a letter from the late Senator Jacob Javits supporting it and I didn't get in and I always wondered what would have happened if I had gotten in," says Redlener. "We could have been having a much different conversation right now."

Redlener was born in Brooklyn. But his father worked for the Veterans Administration, one of the reasons why the family was frequently on the move.

"The fact that we moved 13 times before I graduated high school, for a variety of reasons, did have an effect on my ability to change what I was doing or to look at new opportunities," he says.

His career would present plenty of new opportunities, often in some of the poorest parts of this country and the world. Redlener served as a doctor for Vista in rural Arkansas in the early 70s.

"Terrible, terrible racial issues and poverty and everything," he says of his time there. "It was the real deal and it was a completely unfamiliar environment for me, but it was a tremendously invigorating experience."

It was in Arkansas where Redlener met another Vista volunteer, his future wife Karen.

"The romance of working together really kind of sealed the deal for us as a couple," he says. "It was very, sometimes those kind of intense unusual experiences are extremely romantic."

His travels were only beginning. Redlener went to Guatemala to help earthquake victims. He worked with medical students in the jungles of Honduras, where he was briefly held at gunpoint.

"I don't remember what prompted this teenage militia man to actually point a gun at my face, but it was uncomfortable," Redlener says.

In 1987, Redlener turned his attention to co-founding the Children's Health Fund to provide medical attention for some of New York's poorest children. He's always had a political bent, especially when he worked on the Clinton administration's ultimately unsuccessful plan to reform health care.

"I believe if you are just doing services like healthcare, it's charity, but if you really want to make a contribution, you have to be aware of and willing to play on a political field, as well, if you really want to make substantive changes that will really make a difference in children's lives," he says.

Redlener teaches at Columbia University's School of Public Health and is the director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
He's worked extensively in the field, authoring the book "Americans at Risk."

The Children's Health Fund has 39 mobile medical units nationwide, several of which arrived to stay in states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

But in New York, he is known primarily for the Children's Health Fund. He says Paul Simon has remained strong in his commitment.
And no, there are no musical requirements.

"Simon and Redlener has a ring, doesn't it?" he jokes. "I know I've been proposing it, it's just never materializing. I don't know why."

There are moments of levity, but also a sobering reality. Many of the problems Redlener first addressed in Arkansas in 1971 still exist today – around the city, country and world.

"I never really felt overwhelmed as much as I felt angry about it, about the injustice of it," he says. "And my work in these kinds of environments was never about charity as much as social justice issues here. It just, I found it intolerable that kids would be in this situation in the first place."

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