After seeing the real issues of inequality with her patients as a nurse, Sylvia Caley (MBA ’86, J.D. ’89) went to law school to help more people rather than just one patient at a time. This influenced her to commit time and resources to achieving health equity.
Caley is retiring after 11 years as the director of the Health Law Partnership (HeLP), a medical-legal community collaboration among Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the College of Law and the co-director of the HeLP Legal Services Clinic, which she helped found. Additionally, Caley teaches courses on health policy and legislation and clinical skills and is a member of the Grady Health System Ethics Committee and the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Bioethics and Public Affairs Committees.
Caley worked with vulnerable patients and wanted to be able to improve circumstances for as many people as possible. Those experiences influenced her health advocacy class. While at patients’ bedsides, she saw a lot of uninsured patients, which motivated her to work on issues of increasing access to coverage. This also educated her about social deterrents affecting one’s ability to be and stay healthy and achieve happiness.
Her hospital experience and her first job after law school with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s family law unit helped inspire her to start the HeLP Legal Services Clinic. While with the family law unit, Caley realized her clients had a lot of health issues and health-harming legal problems in addition to family law issues.
Over time, she started dealing more and more with the health issues. And, she thought if she could move her office into the hospital, she could help even more people.
Steven Gottlieb, director of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, has worked with Caley ever since she was hired at Atlanta Legal Aid. “Slyvia has always had an extraordinary commitment and dedication to her clients,” Gottlieb said.
He also commended her for starting the HeLP Clinic. “What she will be most known for is being the founder of the Health Law Partnership (HeLP). It was her vision to have Legal Aid lawyers and law students serve clients in the hospital. She pursued it for over 15 years until it came to fruition in a partnership with GSU, Atlanta Legal Aid and Childrens’ Healthcare of Atlanta. I was so taken by her vision and so trusting of her talent, that I supported her in that quest even when she no longer was an attorney with Legal Aid.”
Dr. Robert Pettignano, medical director of the Health Law Partnership and pediatrician at Children’s Healthcare said that Caley is an “invaluable contributor to the care of our patients/clients, to the practice of medical legal partnership and more specifically to the Health Law Partnership. She has an ongoing drive to ‘do the right thing’ and it has been refreshing to see how she takes the cases of the children we serve to heart.”
Caley didn’t start the clinic right away, she started with a partnership. Her strong background in poverty law helped her know issues that would arise. She did a lot of education in the hospital with the social work team because they worked with patients. She helped them identify legal problems to make appropriate referrals.
Then, Caley started offering externships to Georgia State Law students through the partnership. She knew at the time that law school was interested in having more than one clinic. She talked to Charity Scott, the Catherine C. Henson Professor of Law, and together they wrote grant that was structured so that Caley and Lisa Radtke Bliss, clinical professor, could build the clinic space and buy furniture.
The key thing they wanted to do with the clinic was educate the next generation of professionals, both future lawyers and doctors, about the need for collaboration to address complex needs of patients and families in 21st century.
When Caley retires in June she says she “will miss the people and students, along with the daily opportunity to make someone’s life a little better and the opportunities to help develop good public policy around the area of health, children and families.”
Over the years as Caley helped clinic clients, she also touched the lives of her students. Laurice Lambert (J.D. ’10) met Caley in her second year of law school during a challenging time in her life.
“Sylvia’s kindness and compassionate manner allowed me to feel comfortable opening up to her, and from then on I looked to her as a mentor and friend,” Lambert said. “I am so thankful for all she has done to support and encourage me personally and professionally over the years. She is truly an amazing person that has touched and helped so many people.”
Bliss called Caley’s expertise and leadership in the Medical Legal Partnership movement unmatched.
“She is a thoughtful and generous collaborator, and I’m proud of our work together and the opportunities we had to share our work with others through multiple articles and book chapters, and at dozens of national and international conferences,” Bliss said. “She will be hard to replace. At the same time, I’m grateful that she has laid such an excellent foundation for HeLP and the HeLP Clinic to continue after her retirement.”
Dr. Pettignano said Professor Caley’s interaction with learners in medicine law and other inter-related professions is educational, thoughtful and engaging.
“Personally knowing her has enriched my life both professionally and, maybe more important, personally,” Dr. Pettignano said. “She is a caring, intelligent, supportive person who deserves the best that life has to offer. Her departure will leave a void that will take very, very big shoes to fill.”