A Heart for Helping, Indoors and Out

Melissa Peters, MD
A stressful job demands an effective stress reliever, and for Melissa Peters, MD that means balancing the often demanding world of a physician with the world of gardening.   

An emergency room doctor at Children’s Hospital of Alabama, Peters is also a Certified Master Gardener, thanks to her completion of an intensive course offered by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) at Birmingham Botanical Gardens (BBG). So when Peters isn’t treating young patients who might otherwise be outdoors playing and digging in the dirt, she’s likely to be doing a little digging of her own.

“Some of my earliest memories are seeing my mother and grandparents garden, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” she said. “And since I do shift work, I have chunks of time during the day to use for other purposes.”

But not only does Peters do her own gardening, she helps others with theirs by participating in services offered to the public by ACES and delivered through Master Gardener volunteers. For example, Master Gardeners man an informational phone line made available to anyone who has a gardening problem to call and get answers.

“We’re really a service organization,” Peters said, “and working the phone line is wonderful training. I’ve learned things I had no idea I’d ever want to know.”

And though her medical practice and gardening hobby seem widely divergent, similarities crop up more often than one would think.

“The question-and-answer process is the same process I go through with parents in the ER,” she said. “In both instances, I have to think on my feet and give good answers.”

Peters also assists with BBG’s plant sales and garden tours, meeting and forming friendships with a variety of people from all walks of life.

“There are tons of services available for which the Master Gardener program serves as a conduit,” she said. “It’s a whole lot of fun.”

But just as willingly as Peters serves the gardening community, she also serves young patients in distress as medical director of Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS Center). Established in 1995, the CHIPs Center is an outpatient program where children of suspected sexual and/or physical abuse and their families come for help.

The staff is composed of specially trained doctors, counselors, social workers and nurses who provide forensic medical evaluations, psychosocial assessments, play therapy, social work support, counseling, prevention education and court support.

Peters, who is only one of 324 physicians in the U.S. board certified in child abuse pediatrics, has worked with the CHIPS Center for 11 years. She estimates the program deals with around 350 patients annually. And despite attitudes that child abuse doesn’t happen in the more affluent neighborhoods, Peters knows from sad experience that those beliefs aren’t based on reality.

“It happens in all walks of life. It’s everywhere,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s job security in what I do.”

On the upside, however, the CHIPS Center can also be instrumental in determining when abuse is not a factor in a child’s injuries, but rather the result of an accident or what is considered a “medical mimicker” of abuse. In this regard, the non-child abuse side of Peters’ pediatric practice comes in handy.

“In dealing with kids in the emergency room, I see all kinds of crazy injuries that have nothing to do with abuse,” she said. “It helps me to see those things so I understand the difference.”

But Peters is quick to point out that her role, as well as the roles of her fellow CHIPS workers, is limited in terms of the total societal process for dealing with child abuse. It’s not within their purview, for example, to track down the source of abuse.

“We don’t investigate,” she explained. “We’re medical providers.”

But despite the tragic circumstances and the difficulties CHIPS professionals face as they seek to assist the children and families who fall victim to the heartbreak of abuse, the rewards eventually come, making the efforts to help worthwhile.

“The most satisfying thing about my job is seeing kids months later who have become playful, happy children,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see. No doubt this is a hard job, but I believe I’m the right person for it.”


For more information about the CHIPS Center, visit childrensal.org.

For more information on Master Gardener programs statewide, visit mg.aces.edu.


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