Delivering bad news can be done well and it can be done poorly. Each parent of a child with autism has his or her own story of receiving the diagnosis. In our case, 13+ years later, I vividly recall the date of our appointment, that I was wearing a favorite blouse, superstitiously hoping it would influence the outcome, and that it was one of the hardest days of my life.
I had asked that we be referred to “the autism doctor at Children’s”. Back then, there were few who were interested in working with our kids. I want to share with you today our story of the doctor who diagnosed our child and what he means to our family.
Dr. Chuck Cowan broke my heart that day – and then spent the last thirteen years helping it to heal.
He listened patiently to our observations of our baby girl who had gone off track developmentally. He gave us credit for being loving, intelligent parents. His query didn’t feel intrusive or judgmental. When I asked if there had been something I might have done, or not done, to cause this, he sensitively and convincingly set me straight. He gave us guidance in next steps and didn’t overwhelm us with a laundry list of things we couldn’t possibly access. When we left that day, he gave us his card and encouraged us to be in touch, as he was sure we’d have lots of questions to come.
Was that ever an understatement! Oh, the myriad questions he has fielded from me. I wish I could say that he had an answer, the answer, for me each and every time, but he has always been the first to admit that we still have more questions than answers when it comes to autism. That said, he always researched whatever I brought to him if he was not familiar with it. He never pooh-poohed any of the less-than-conventional things I had entertained trying in my desperate efforts to make autism go away and he taught me to let science be my guide when choosing treatments.
We’ve met a number of “autism experts” over the years and along with advice, we’ve, at times, gotten a hefty dose of ego from providers who are, themselves, rather than the family, at the center of the care they provide. Ego isn’t what drives Chuck Cowan.
His concern and love for his families does. Probably the most important thing that Dr. Cowan has done for our family is to let us know how much he cares. When discussing our latest challenge, concern shows all over his face, brow furrowed as he pauses to think before speaking. The depth of his passion and commitment is evident.
My favorite memory isn’t about any particularly significant event. It was the summer after her diagnosis and we were back for a return visit. It was at the hospital before that big remodel, we were his last appointment of the day, and he was running late. Carrie was doing anything but waiting patiently in that little exam room and she had finally managed to get past me to the door. She bolted down the hall and as I rushed out after her, I saw her running down the hall towards Dr. Cowan, who with a big smile intercepted her as he bid farewell to his other family. That image of him shepherding her is indelibly etched in my mind.
I’ve also had the honor of working with Dr. Cowan and have seen this play out too many times to count, in a clinic where we often see a hundred patients a day. He never ceases to amaze me with his memory for the names and stories of the families he serves.
I could gush about Chuck Cowan all day, but there are others who have gushed and we want to share their stories and memories with you. Here are some of them.
From the Loaris Family:
“We’ve known Dr. Cowan for ten years. What we appreciate most about him is that he always showed care for our entire family, not just our two kids with autism. He reminded us that we need to take care of ourselves and our other kids too. Dr. Cowan never overwhelmed us with too many suggestions or asked us to do more than we realistically could do. While he never made false promises, he did encourage us to look at things in a positive light and to recognize progress. Our wishes for him are rest, relaxation, and enjoyment in retirement. We want you to know that you have made a lasting impact on the state of Washington and beyond. Your good works will continue to live on.”
From the Emmerson Family:
“We’ve known Dr. Cowan for many years and what we appreciate most about him is how approachable he is. Our son reads people’s vibes very well and it takes a while for him to warm up to people. Dr. Cowan is so friendly and gentle that our son feels comfortable with him. We appreciate how accessible he is to us, particularly in situations where we need a quick response. We just haven’t met another doctor so willing to let us contact him. We wish Dr. Cowan some rest and relaxation and all the best in retirement.”
And from staff who work with him:
From Karen Sporn, ARNP:
“My favorite memory of Dr. Cowan was shortly after I first met him. I attended an Autism Center 200 series, and Dr. Cowan was the guest speaker that night. The room was filled with parents, asking thoughtful and yet challenging questions about autism. During that hour and a half I was struck by how knowledgeable and yet how humble he was, and how he really listened to the parents’ questions, answering in a straightforward and sensitive way. At the end of the allotted time, Dr. Cowan stayed late to continue to talk with parents and answer their questions. I have appreciated that about Dr. Cowan this past year in working with him; his amazing knowledge, his straightforward and yet sensitive nature, and his approachability.”
From Jason Russo, RN:
“As Chuck retires, instead of feeling sad, I feel extremely excited for him!! I am truly enjoying watching many years of planning, hoping and dreaming come to fruition, as Chuck retires from patient care, and can take on the Medical Director position of The Seattle Children’s Hospital Autism Center, a place that Chuck has worked tirelessly for years to make a reality! I am so glad that I have had the opportunity to work with and get to know Chuck over the last 8 years, and look forward to continuing working with him! I hope that “retirement” brings you all the time in the world to do what you want (guitar lessons, live music, trips to Sayulita, and everything “i”)!”
From Jennifer Mannheim, ARNP:
“I have known Chuck for some time but started working with him in 2004 at the Seattle Children’s Bellevue Clinic. I would describe Chuck as compassionate (he really cares about the impact he has on kids and families), an “outside-the-box thinker”, and dynamic (he can do anything and it seems he knows at least a little about everything).
My favorite memory of Chuck is a non-clinical one. It was after we had been at a conference and we were waiting at an airport. He had gotten a message from his son that he shared with me. His son was of an age to be drafted and was contemplating being a conscientious objector. As Chuck was mulling over how to have this conversation with his son, I could see that he was both proud that his son was giving this such thought and proud that as a father, he would be helping his son to make this decision. Chuck has always been very proud of his family and I think when he thinks about treating his patients, he often thinks of them as if they were family.
Chuck had a huge impact on my career. He has taught me a lot of what I know today. I often go to him with questions and he always surprises me with new tidbits of information.
I really like how Chuck thinks about autism and developmental disabilities in general. His perspective is often to think about the needs of the child and family, regardless of the diagnosis, then go about addressing the needs in the best way possible with what resources are available.
I remember one of the first times I heard Chuck thinking about retirement, I think it was in 2006. He had seen a career counselor to help him figure out what he wanted to do when he retired. I hope with retirement, that every day he experiences joy, continues to learn and loves life.”
From Ruth Benefield, VP, Psycho-Social Services:
“I’ve known Chuck close to three decades! Chuck is one of the most committed, passionate and holistic doctors I know. My favorite memories of him are watching him lead others in effective partnerships. I wish for him many trips, great health, and the reward of knowing what a difference he made in the lives of many children.
Chuck, I wish you much love and light and laughter and may others bestow on you the same kindness that you have shown to so many.”
From Erin Easley, LICSW, Clinic Manager
“I admire the way Dr. Cowan greets his patients and families with such warmth and enthusiasm. He always puts families at the forefront of his work whether it’s seeing them in clinic or working on the bigger-picture issues of diagnosing and treating autism.
I appreciate the leadership role he has played in the development of our center and the systems he has helped put into place for staff. Dr. Cowan is a fierce advocate for the underserved and for those whose voice isn’t heard. He is a bit of a rebel and is not afraid to speak his mind. He has such a will to do right by families and is the first to admit that he doesn’t know something or is wrong.”
From Jana Wardell, Family Services Team
“I have only known Dr. Cowan for a couple of years, but perhaps one of my favorite memories and one that I think truly shows the kindness and warmth of his character would have to be from this past summer when we volunteered at Camp Sealth to help with their autism camp. Dr. Cowan showed up bright and early in jeans and tennis shoes and jumped right in. One camper that struggled with homesickness immediately warmed up to Dr. Cowan. The camper spent a good part of the first day contemplating going home, shying away from other campers and counselors, and becoming tearful at times. Dr. Cowan probably spent hours listening to stories from the camper about school and teachers, friends and pets, likes and dislikes, and mom and dad. The camper made it through the entire trip and at one point when Dr. Cowan had stepped away, turned to me and said, “Hey, have you seen my friend Chuck?” It is a memory that still makes me smile.”
From Lindsey Miller, ARNP:
“I appreciate Dr. Cowan’s directness and his encouragement of staff to ask questions and continue to learn. I also enjoy his sense of humor and infectious laugh! I wish him well in his retirement from clinical practice and hope he gets to spend more time with his family.”
From Jan Bersin, RN:
“Dr. Cowan’s career has been inspirational to me. He could have worked anywhere, but his heart is in serving the underserved and we’ve been fortunate to have him at Seattle Children’s all these years. Dr. Cowan tries very hard to sees things from the patient and family perspective rather than from his own as a provider. I hope he continues to learn and enjoy life to the fullest.”
From Deb Gumbardo, MS, RN, Director of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine:
“In a word – ‘tenacious’! That’s how I would describe Chuck Cowan. I remember in the 1990s when he was so adamant about our Inpatient Psychiatric Unit (IPU) admitting patients with autism. Staff didn’t feel they had the expertise to address their issues but with Chuck’s insistence and persistence, they did. This was the beginning of a partnership between the IPU and families and patients with autism.”
From Katrina Davis, Family Resource Specialist:
“As a parent of a child with autism and someone who works closely with families living with autism, I hold my years of experience with Dr. Charles Cowan (Chuck) very near and dear to my heart.
I witnessed his compassion, deep concern and thoughtful reflection as he worked with families.
He carries years of family stories in his warm kind eyes.
He has a remarkable memory for families—he remembers the important details about your story.
Chuck Cowan has played a vital role in the way many of us approach those living with autism, including the importance of listening carefully, understanding parents are the expert when it comes to their child, and being persistent and patient when it comes to creating change in the world.
This is the man who had a dream that grew a center that now serves a larger percentage of those living with autism than any other in the region.
He doesn’t give up. He loves people, music, food and life with such zest and gusto—It’s purely contagious.
And as a parent, he helped me pause and enjoy the goodness within that moment.”
In summary, we owe a debt of gratitude to you, Dr. Chuck Cowan for your many years of dedication to patients and families living with autism. We wouldn’t be where we are today without you. We’re keeping your dream alive and wishing you all things good in your retirement.
Do you have a favorite memory of Dr. Cowan or wishes you’d like to share? Send him a message here today!