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Doctor at Akron Children's Hospital building powerful connection with patients

Like some of the patients he works with, Dr. Christopher “Raffi” Najarian has cerebral palsy and shares his personal experiences with the families he sees.

AKRON, Ohio — When 3News followed along with Dr. Christopher “Raffi” Najarian at Akron Children’s Hospital for a portion of his day, one thing became apparent quickly - he is a very busy physiatrist. 

Also known as a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, Dr. Najarian’s schedule was packed, visiting with patients all day and squeezing in lunch between appointments. 

In his line of work, Dr. Najarian said he works with “children with disabilities of all kinds,” aiming to help improve their daily functioning and independence. He can prescribe mobility equipment, medicines, and physical, speech, and occupational therapies. 

But despite his packed schedule, one thing became apparent - Dr. Najarian was not whisking in and out of rooms, spending 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Over the course of his appointments, which were about 50 minutes long, he touched on everything from matters of health, to family vacations, to what was going on in school. 

When asked what his favorite part of his job was, the doctor’s response was immediate.

“Hanging out with them, with my patients!” he said eagerly. “Kids are great, they're a lot of fun. They have wonderful senses of humor. They tell me about what's going on in their lives, and then I love to hear about that, and I want to know what they're doing and what they're up to.”

Dr. Najarian said his relationship with each patient is unique, something Brianne Savage, mother of 9-year-old patient Chase Savage, appreciates. 

“We don't ever feel like they're just kind of, you know, ‘okay, next, you know, we're done, bye, see you later,’” she said. “We're always joking, we're always having conversations. So it's long-term relationships because he's going to need them for until he ages out with pediatrics.” 

Something else that’s comforting to Brianne is feeling like Dr. Najarian understands what her son is going through. Chase has cerebral palsy and dystonia, and uses a wheelchair and speech device to communicate. 

“For me as a parent, it also helps me feel like he knows probably what Chase feels,” she said. “I don't know that. As his parent, I can tell you, you know, his behavior and what he likes and doesn't like, but I can't tell you how he feels and he can't tell me very easily either.”

Dr. Najarian also has cerebral palsy, using a wheelchair to move around the hospital. 

“Cerebral palsy is something that in my professional life I see all the time. It's the most common motor disability of childhood, and so it really affects how people are able to move and affects their posture, and their ability to do and execute motor skills,” Dr. Najarian said. “I had trouble with those things from the time I was born.”

Dr. Najarian said he was late in “typical milestones” such as sitting, standing and walking, sharing he didn’t take his own independent steps until he was seven years old. Growing up, Dr. Najarian said he went to physical and occupational therapies, and also underwent orthopedic surgeries. 

“It was my personal experience living with CP, working with, you know, different specialists and providers that made me want to go into my field, to be able to work with kids who ultimately are like me and I'm like them,” he said. “I have a little special place in my heart in particular for kids with CP.”

As he trained to become a doctor, Dr. Najarian experienced the ways in which CP affected how he was able to do some things his classmates were doing. 

For example, he said during his surgery rotation in medical school, they had to find a stool that would elevate to an appropriate height for him to use the operating table, and said he needed assistance gowning and gloving for the operating room. 

The things that impacted his experience in medical school are now some of the traits that his patients most connect with.

“I think that's what gives him such a bond with these kids is he literally is in their shoes,” said Letty Walker, mother of patient Ben Walker. “Where a lot of times, you have a doctor who doesn't go through those same experiences that they do.”

Ben Walker has been a patient at Akron Children’s Hospital for about 10 years and also has cerebral palsy. Ben credits Dr. Najarian with helping him walk upright, and said the doctor showed him different braces, including his own. 

“It's fantastic, I mean, he's a great guy,” Ben said of Dr. Najarian. 

Both the Walker and Savage families expressed their gratitude for Dr. Najarian. 

“You don't know what it feels like to be kind of stuck in a body that doesn't always do what you want it to do,” Savage said. “I definitely think that perspective impacts his ability to be very empathetic and offer care and have that rapport with parents because I trust him to make good decisions.”

According to Dr. Najarian, it’s important for everyone to realize the potential and the skills they have, and to celebrate those things. 

“It's important that people have representation, that see people that look like themselves, doing things, you know, that they want to be, that they aspire to be doing, to know that it's possible that it can be done,” he said. “Is it hard work? Yes. Are you going to need help? Yes. But don't automatically rule things out.”

Dr. Najarian is making an impression on his patients in the hospital and beyond. 

“I do think, you know, that many of my patients look at me and again – see somebody who looks like them,” he said. “And if it that inspires somebody to seek out an opportunity educationally or professionally, then that makes me really, really happy and really, really proud that because of me, somebody is trying to make the most of their capabilities.”

More reporting from Isabel Lawrence

EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above previously aired on 3News on Feb. 1, 2023. 

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