By Holly Tarson
Photographed by Karen Pearson
A toy monkey dangles over the front desk by its tail. A vase of kid-sized sunflowers and colorful wooden birdhouses decorate the room. It’s a pediatric office, to be sure. But look more closely, and Bambini Pediatrics in Poughkeepsie is no ordinary doctor’s office. This same waiting room is also an apothecary of vitamins, minerals, probiotics and fish oil. Bambini is a magical mash-up of allopathy and homeopathy, a culmination of the ideals and life experience of Dr. Joseph Malak, MD.
He’s an affable, soft-spoken man, with a gentle unassuming presence, all wonderful qualities in a pediatrician. But his path to pediatrics wasn’t obvious at first. He was a good student who finished high school at 16. He decided to pursue medicine in part because of his father’s encouragement, in part due to the influence of his own pediatrician, Dr. Leonard Rome. Dr. Malak attended Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio and describes their approach as basically allopathic (what people might consider traditional Western medicine). The first two years of medical school were classroom courses: “Biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, a lot of pharmacology—not too much nutrition,” Joe quips. Then the clerkships began, and students abruptly left the classroom to enter the hospital wards. There were five rotations: surgery, psychiatry, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology and pediatrics. Joe laughs as he describes them, saying, “Each one was kind of a disaster for me!”
His surgery rotation was at the VA Hospital. He says many of the patients were guys who had smoked too long and lost the blood supply to their lower extremities. So most of what was being done was amputations. “I was, like, ‘Oh man, I can’t do this!’” Next was psychiatry, “Which was also demoralizing,” he says. “One of the patients escaped the locked ward and threatened to kill the president of the United States. When we got him back, he said the man on the Goodyear sign had been telling him to do that.” It was all drugs and talk therapy, which were not his forte. His obstetrics and gynecology rotation wasn’t the answer either. The senior resident diagnosed a patient with endometriosis. Dr. Malak’s diagnosis of a tubal ectopic pregnancy turned out to be correct. Conflict arose. And then during his internal medicine rotation, he became ill with mononucleosis and missed half the program. “So, I was like—‘Okay, I’m kind of down to pediatrics.’”
But as these things sometimes go, pediatrics is where Dr. Malak was most destined to be. “I thought about my pediatrician, who just loved his day and working with kids. So it was like pediatrics was over here and everything else was…not even in consideration.” He completed his pediatrics residency at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City in the mid-1980s and became Chief Resident of Pediatrics at Albany Medical Center.
In those early years, alternative medicine hadn’t really entered his awareness. “[For] the first half of my career, from 1985 to 2000, I thought all children had an amoxicillin deficiency that needed to be corrected periodically,” he (sort of) jokes. It’s what he was taught. He says this without any note of malice and acknowledges that the doctors who taught him were sincere, that the FDA and American Academy of Pediatrics were “all good people.”
But then he became a parent. “I have a B.C. and C.E. aspect to my career—before children and then after children,” he says. Before he had kids, a parent might have told him, “My child threw up on me in my bed at two o’clock in the morning,” and he would have thought, “Why are you even telling me that?” But after he had kids, he had a completely different response. “I was like, ‘Awww! So what did you do? Did you put towels down?’” He says he would look them in the eye and could feel their pain. This personal understanding of the struggles of parenting changed him as a doctor.
When his parenting path took a sharp left turn, Dr. Malak’s approach to medical treatment began to diverge as well. His young son suffered a traumatic brain injury. Dr. Malak had heard about hyperbaric oxygen and some other non-mainstream approaches to treatment. So when a pediatric neurologist said, “Why don’t we try him on some Ritalin?” Dr. Malak thought, “Why don’t we not do that.” Considering alternatives to a standard, more rote approach to medicine created a moment of epiphany for him.
Parenting has a way of humbling even the most confident adult. Those little humans turn our insides out and shift the ground under what we were sure we knew. Parenting a special-needs child is all that and exponentially more. As he navigated the treatment options for his son, Dr. Malak began to feel a bond with other parents of kids who were disabled or who had autism or other diagnoses. It is as if the pause he took when he questioned the Ritalin suggestion created a crack, and new discoveries of alternatives trickled and then poured in. A parent, who was a chiropractor, started engaging Dr. Malak in conversations about natural health. Dr. Malak went to a chiropractor himself for the first time. Before long, a network of chiropractors started bringing their kids to him. At the same time, a culture gap was developing between Dr. Malak and his partners at TLC Pediatrics in Poughkeepsie. “I started going in one direction…and the rest of the practice went in another.” So, in January of 2010, he opened a new practice that embraced an integrative, more holistic approach to medicine. Bambini Pediatrics was born.
In general, families are hesitant to change pediatric practices. Bambini’s first few months were bumpy. But social media helped amplify the positive buzz about the kind of care people were receiving, and soon the growth of the practice was exponential. It’s not easy to find medical care that incorporates both allopathy and homeopathy. Usually one side is pretty dug-in against the other. Dr. Malak acknowledges Bambini’s approach isn’t for everyone. Parents who want antibiotics every time their child has a sinus infection are not inclined to embrace more-natural options first. And patients who strictly disavow all vaccines might consider the flexible approach to vaccination at Bambini heresy through their lens of natural health.
But it’s the philosophy of partnership with parents that sets Bambini apart. In medical school, Dr. Malak says, it was assumed that the doctor was right and the parent shouldn’t question it.
He thinks of himself as a consultant who offers, but does not force, his medical opinion. Dr. Malak raves about the parents who bring their children to him. He says so many of them are smart and conscientious. They do research. “A day does not go by where a parent doesn’t teach me something,” he says. Bambini is the embodiment of integrative health, holding in balance a variety of treatment paths and helping parents navigate each choice for the best overall wellness of their child.
A year ago, Dr. Malak had what he calls “a pretty substantial opportunity” to apply these principles of integrative health to himself. He was driving home from Cleveland, where he’d been visiting his 95-year-old mom, when he felt a lump on his neck that hadn’t been there the day before. “It was pretty big, like a golf ball, overnight. I knew I had cancer.” In children, the cancer diagnosis process unfolds rapidly. Patients are in treatment in a few days. But for adults, the trajectory is far less immediate. He had lab work, x-rays and biopsies, each peppered with waiting for results. He was losing weight and energy. Tests revealed the cancer was in his bone marrow; it was a stage IV diagnosis. The first appointment he could get with an oncologist was three weeks away. In the meantime, he pursued other options for treatment. He saw a homeopathic doctor and a naturopath. He started a regimen of herbs and juicing. Before long, his night sweats had resolved and his elevated inflammatory markers were back in the normal range.
He also went forward with some of the treatment recommended by the oncologist at Sloane Kettering. Dr. Malak said soon he had no nodes and felt “better than average.” In fact, he felt so good he hiked up Brace Mountain the day after his third, and final, dose of Rituxan. Now he’s taking it one step at a time. He knows the cancer could come back. He continues to monitor his blood work, to eat well, to sleep well. But he feels that if he’d followed a strictly allopathic approach, things might be different today.
Bambini Pediatrics is thriving and the staff is expanding. Dr. Malak is spreading some of the responsibilities around to make it a lighter and more manageable load for him to carry. He strives to foster an environment that allows all the mindful practitioners who work there to continue fulfilling the Bambini motto: Wholesome Medical Care for Kids.
Learn more about this practice and read Dr. Malak’s newsletters at www.bambini-peds.com. █