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2023 Award for Service: Janifer Judisch, MD


Janifer Judisch co-founded the Children’s Cancer Center (CCC) in Tampa, Florida. During her 25 years of service to the CCC, she revolutionized the center’s approach to the psychosocial elements of childhood cancers and blood diseases. She advocated for informing children of their diagnoses, going against the prevailing wisdom of the time. 

“When I started, we weren't telling kids what they had. We thought the kids couldn't take it,” Judisch says. 

Judisch’s work showed that leading with truth creates a more supportive environment for a sick child, rather than withholding the diagnosis and potentially causing the child confusion and shame. 

The kids and their parents need to talk to each other about the most important thing that's going on in their lives,” she says. 

Judisch’s programs at the CCC united music therapists, play therapists, social workers, child life specialists, and other experts to care for the social and emotional needs of sick children and their families while maintaining as much normalcy as possible. 

Portrait of Dr. Janifer Judisch
Dr. Janifer Judisch

“Kids have a job, and that job is to grow up,” she says. “That doesn’t just mean that they grow physically or that they stay alive. It means they grow psychologically, and you get them ready for the next stage of life.” 

Her Big Buddy program was a particular success. Judisch started the program after noticing siblings of children with life-threatening illnesses who were struggling with feelings of abandonment.  

“The kid who's sick gets all the presents, all the attention, everybody worries about him—and the siblings are sort of forgotten about,” Judisch says. 

To support these children, medical student “Buddies” were matched with the siblings to spend time together. The CCC paid for monthly outings with the Big Buddies, where they supported the siblings as caring listeners and gave them the chance to just be kids. The Big Buddy program has served as a model for numerous other pediatric hospitals. 

Judisch's integrative approach also supported parents and grandparents. Each family met with a social worker as a part of their first session, which helped the social worker become an integral part of the care team. They were then better able to observe and address conflict if it arose and help maintain family cohesion through the difficulties of illness and treatment. 

Sick children need to feel like they are loved and wanted,” Judisch says. “But it’s not only the kid who needs support. All the things you learn about grief, the families went through it when the child was first diagnosed. And in the middle of all this is a child who, all of a sudden, is being treated entirely differently than ever before.” 

Judisch ensured that healthy childhood development and play remained priorities as children underwent cancer treatment. In the hospital playroom, where no medical procedures or tests were allowed, she encouraged young patients to bring along a friend or sibling to play with. 

“We knew that it was a success when we would get the kids out of the playroom to take into one of the exam rooms, and after, they immediately wanted to go back to the playroom,” she says. 

Judisch also served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida and as senior associate dean of the institution’s college of medicine. She retired in 2000 and continues to contribute as a CCC board member. For the care teams, patients, and families at the CCC, her work and wisdom live on. 

When I walked in the room, I’d talk to the kid first,” she says. “It was important to me that the child knew I was their doctor and they were my patient."