A Look at a Leader: Elaine Cox, MD

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She’s the medical director of infection prevention and a patient safety officer at IU Health’s Riley Hospital for Children—administrative positions that provide her with the opportunity to develop new ways to combat hospital-acquired infections (HAIs.)

For Elaine Cox, becoming a doctor was a foregone conclusion. “When I was about seven years old, I remember saying to my mom that maybe I’d be a doctor someday,” she recalls. “She latched onto the idea and encouraged it, and I never strayed from it.” Dr. Cox attended medical school and completed her residency in pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, where she met her greatest source of professional inspiration: Martin Kleiman, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Indiana University Health’s Riley Hospital for Children. At the time, Dr. Kleiman was caring for Ryan White, the Indiana teenager whose battle with AIDS made national headlines in the late 1980s. Dr. Cox was touched by Dr. Kleiman’s care and devotion to White. “You really need someone in your life who makes you think, ‘Wow, this is a great human being and I want to do what he’s doing—it was inspiring,” she says.

After graduating in 1993, Dr. Cox spent a couple of years in private practice in Columbus, OH, where her husband—a fellow infectious disease specialist she’d met in medical school—was completing a fellowship. It was a valuable experience, but Dr. Cox hoped to return to Indiana to be close to her family. When her husband was offered a job in Indianapolis, she was thrilled; she just needed to figure out what her next career move would be. Enter Dr. Kleiman, who, upon learning Dr. Cox was returning to Indiana, told her to show up at Riley and he would have a job for her.

The position he had in mind was unexpected: Dr. Kleiman wanted Dr. Cox to create and direct a pediatric HIV and AIDS clinic at Riley. It proved to be a career-defining moment. “I hadn’t planned to focus on HIV and AIDS, but it became a huge passion for me,” Dr. Cox says. In six months, she and her colleagues opened The Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Disease and Global Health at Riley. She ran the center for 16 years, seeing nearly every child affected by HIV and AIDS in the state. “At the time, there were still a number of doctors who were pretty afraid of HIV patients,” she says. “We ended up taking care of these children’s every need.”

Sadly, when the center opened in 1995, there was just so much that Dr. Cox or any doctor could do for patients who had HIV at the time. “People were going into hospice to die,” she says. “It was difficult, but it taught me so much about healing people as opposed to curing them—and not every doctor gets to see that part of medicine so starkly. You helped people accept their situation and take control of it.” Twenty-one years later, advances in treatment now enable those with HIV to live longer, fuller lives. “I get to see my patients grow up and have children of their own,” says Dr. Cox.

One of her biggest accomplishments came in 2012, when she led the effort to change Indiana law to provide universal HIV testing for pregnant women. “Many of the children in my practice had been infected by their mother, and the mothers didn’t even realize they were HIV positive,” says Dr. Cox. But when a woman is diagnosed with HIV during pregnancy, doctors can often prevent transmission from mother to child. “I didn’t want to have to tell any more women that their baby was HIV positive and that it could have been prevented,” she says.

Now, Dr. Cox is in the second phase of her career. She’s the medical director of infection prevention and a patient safety officer at IU Health’s Riley Hospital for Children—administrative positions that provide her with the opportunity to develop new ways to combat hospital-acquired infections (HAIs.) She even testified on HAIs before Congress two years ago. “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” says Dr. Cox. “I’m sitting next to political bigwigs, thinking ‘How on earth did this ever happen?’”

When she’s not at Riley, Dr. Cox enjoys traveling (London and Paris were two recent stops) and always makes sure she sees the sights when she has to travel for business. At home, you’ll likely find her in front of a football game. “We spend a lot of time watching sports at our house,” she says. Or she might be at work on her health column for U.S. News & World Report. “I have a real reverence for the written word,” says Dr. Cox.

-- By Jessica Brown

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