While the ever-present urban pulse of New York City sends some parents running for the suburbs, it never gave Dr. Shefali Khanna—the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx—any pause whatsoever. This working mother spends her days caring for the health of some of the city’s poorest children, then uses the city’s unique offerings to help teach, inspire, and entertain her growing pre-teen daughters off-hours.
Dr. Khanna grew up in Bombay, India, and traded one bustling metropolis for another when, after completing medical school and her equivalency exams in India, she arrived in NYC in 1993 to do her residency at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. “The thing that attracted me most to New York—and I’ve never lived anywhere else in the United States—is the whole multicultural aspect,” she says of her initial impressions of the Big Apple. “You really see and do everything in New York.”
For Khanna, much of her own seeing and doing in the city had to do with following her lifelong dreams of being a doctor and working in pediatrics. From her residency, she went on to become chief resident at St. Luke’s, before accepting a position at Lincoln Medical Center(which is a member hospital of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation)—where she became associate director and later the chair of the Department of Pediatrics.
In her role at Lincoln—which serves a population that’s historically very low-income and in need of quality health services—Khanna keeps ties between the hospital and the local community strong as she maintains an active role in teaching medical students at the Weill Cornell Medical College. Despite working in an often-challenging environment that has very few resources but many needs, Khanna always keeps sight of why she loves what she does.
“I really enjoy advocating for children—and advocating for what’s right and what’s healthy,” she says. For Khanna and her staff at Lincoln, doing that goes beyond simply treating injuries and illnesses as they come. It’s more about cultivating lifelong healthy habits in kids who may not otherwise get such guidance.
Khanna points to the work that Lincoln does in fighting pediatric asthma and obesity as examples of how healthcare is evolving to encourage well-being in children after a hospital visit. To bring down the number of asthma-related admittances for children, for example, they were one of the first to help families gauge symptoms and avoid full-blown asthma attacks by teaching creative, symbol-based ways that little ones who can’t yet read can use to express their symptom levels, in what’s known as the Asthma Action Plan.
As far as obesity goes, Khanna is proud to report that Lincoln is similarly proactive. “We try to teach the children the ‘5210’ formula—that means five fruits and vegetables, two hours or less of screen time, one hour of exercise, and zero sugary drinks a day,” she explains. Then this easy-to-remember equation is paired with a roster of Zumba, salsa dancing, and Tae Kwon Do classes to create the Lincoln Fitness Fun program, to entice all ages to take an interest in staying healthy.
Outside of the hospital, Khanna stays young at heart thanks to her husband Dr. Anirudh Khanna and two daughters—Tara, age 12, and Naomi, age 9. They live on the Upper East Side, which Khanna describes as the “quintessential family neighborhood” where the pizza man on the corner knows her kids personally. From Tara’s Tae Kwon Do lessons and music rehearsals, to Naomi’s regular practices as a budding gymnast and pianist, to the fact that Broadway and a cornucopia of worldly bistros and cafes are practically at the family’s front door, Khanna sees NYC as an unbeatable place to raise a family.
“Children are exposed to everything, both good and bad,” she says. “You learn from the bad, so you don’t get scared and you don’t get fazed. And the good is that you’re exposed to every kind of culture—and every kind of person.”