When Dr. Kathleen van Leeuwen was a senior at Moon Valley High School, she serendipitously happened upon a newspaper article that would set her career trajectory.
The article outlined the importance of pediatric medicine to families.
That year was also when she lost her older brother, Pete, 20, who died in the operating room following a tragic car accident.
“He was valedictorian of his high school class, a very dynamic person,” van Leeuwen said.
These two occurrences started her on her path to becoming one of the top pediatric surgeons in Phoenix and founder of the Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Fetal Care Center, Arizona’s only program offering advanced fetal diagnosis and newborn medical and surgical intervention.
Now serving as its co-director, van Leeuwen said the inception of the Fetal Care Center is “really gratifying.”
“We basically do everything we can to make the families really comfortable from good communication to making sure they receive everything they need,” she said.
She said she understood and empathized with pregnant mothers whose babies were diagnosed with a medical condition in utero, and understood they needed reassurance as well as the highest level of medical care.
She likened her role to that of a quarterback, working with her team to help families navigate an often complicated healthcare system while developing a care plan prior to the baby’s birth.
“Anticipating needs of our patients is our top priority,” said van Leeuwen.
In addition to that role, the 14-year Ahwatukee resident is the director of the reproductive anomalies/disorders of sexual development at PCH, a clinic that serves the complex needs of patients with congenital malformations of the reproductive system.
As an East Valley resident since returning to Arizona with her medical degree in 2005, van Leeuwen is enthusiastic about the Phoenix Children’s/Dignity Health fetal care/fetal imaging expansion in the East Valley.
The expanded Fetal Care Center will open in 2021 at the Dignity Health Phoenix Children’s Women and Children’s Pavilion at Mercy Gilbert.
Formerly available only at the downtown PCH, the East Valley expansion, which includes a pediatric ER, is a boon to parents and families.
“We’re all very busy and that 45-minute drive one-way can be very difficult. East Valley patients need to be seen in the East Valley,” said van Leeuwen.
“Having a dedicated pediatric emergency room and inpatient facility in the East Valley is a game changer for families,” she added. “When you have one child in the hospital and other little ones at home, the drive makes all the difference on the world.”
“And now, pairing up with a place that delivers babies makes it even better,” she enthused. “There should be very little that requires an East Valley family to go elsewhere for obstetric or pediatric care.”
From that portentous newspaper article that essentially launched her determination to become a pediatrician to becoming a pre-eminent physician in her field, there were many years of dedicated study beginning with her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California (UFC).
“As an Arizona native, I’d thought of going to an in-state university but my scholarship money was from USC, and I needed that financial aid,” said van Leeuwen.
After USC she traveled to Manhattan’s Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she received her medical degree. She then completed her general surgery training at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
While there, Dr. van Leeuwen served as administrative chief resident.
She continued her training with the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan for her fellowship in pediatric surgery.
She now also serves as Medical Director of the Phoenix Children’s Medical Group East Valley.
She will be an instrumental leader when the Women and Children’s Pavilion, which will offer the first Level (cq) III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, opens in the East Valley.
Her role will be to ensure specialty and subspecialty services meet the needs of families who have infants with complex needs.
A single mother of three daughters – two who attend Desert Vista High School as a sophomore and senior and the youngest, a fifth grader, is at Kyrene de los Cerritos Leadership Academy – she values family time, and makes time for family fun.
“My three daughters and I love music, and we go to concerts whenever we can. We basically love to sing at the top of our lungs!” she laughed. “And I also sing in a all-doctor rock band named ‘Central Line.’”
The loss of her brother at a pivotal time in her life and motherhood has helped mold van Leeuwen into the caring and compassionate physician she is.
“I take care of my patients as if they were my own kids. I protect them from harm and try to do everything that makes them have a good outcome. Sometimes that is making someone with a rare diagnosis feel normal and not alone,” she said. “I also understand the parents because I am one. It’s about empathy. That’s a God-given gift that not everyone has or can learn.”
She said she’s heartily anticipating the opening of the Women’s and Children’s Pavilion, a five-story, 373,947 square-foot facility that represents a partnership between Dignity Health, one of the nation’s largest health systems, and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Since 2014, Phoenix Children’s Hospital has operated a pediatric inpatient unit inside Mercy Gilbert with 22 private patient rooms, and around-the-clock coverage by PCH physicians and staff.
It was that successful collaboration and acclaim by the community that led to creating the Dignity Health Phoenix Children Hospital’s Women’s and Children’s Pavilion.
Phoenix Children’s President/CEO Bob Meyer echoed van Leeuwen’s enthusiasm about providing additional local service to the East County.
“The new women’s and children’s facility will be home to many of Phoenix Children’s pediatric specialists and those looking to join the PCH family – many of whom live here in the East Valley,” said Meyer. “We’re thrilled to work closely with our partners at Dignity Health and bring vital services to our patients’ families right here in their backyard.”
Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Dignity Health have been in Partnership since 2011.
Both are a part of Arizona Mother-Baby Care, which provides personalized care coordination by connecting patients to the best specialists and caregivers. Many of these network specialists will be located in the Women’s and Children’s Pavilion.
As a general surgeon, van Leeuwen is also affiliated with multiple hospitals in the metro area including Chandler Regional Medical center and HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center.
As a surgeon, van Leeuwen made history when she performed the first thoracoscopic repair of a congenital diaphragmatic hernia in Phoenix at PCH.