Essentia’s Dr. Dhilhan Marasinghe receives Community Impact Award

March 26, 2024  By: Caitlin Pallai

man holding an award and smiling alongside two women

Dr. Dhilhan Marasinghe, section chair of pediatrics for Essentia Health's West Market, was recently recognized with a 2024 Community Impact Award at the seventh annual gala hosted by GiGi's Playhouse Fargo.

This award recognizes an individual who actively engages with and passionately supports the Down syndrome community and exemplifies the core values of GiGi's Playhouse.

Andrea Hensrud, board president of GiGi's Playhouse, and Heather Lorenzen, executive director, presented Dr. Marasinghe with the award at their Derby for Down syndrome event.

man smiling with award in hand"In May 2023, Essentia Health pediatrician Dr. Dhilhan Marasinghe embarked on a mission to deepen his team's understanding of Down syndrome and enhance the support resources within our community," said Lorenzen. "Little did he know this endeavor would ignite a transformative partnership between GiGi's Playhouse and Essentia Health."

In October 2023, Essentia Health partnered with GiGi's Playhouse to launch a project called Essentia's Olive Branch.

"Olive Branch was made possible thanks to so many Essentia colleagues who care so much about our Down syndrome community," explained Dr. Marasinghe. "I'm so happy that we could provide support and comfort to families with a newborn diagnosis of Down syndrome and introduce them to the unlimited resources provided by Gigi's Playhouse."

"Dr. Marasinghe's dedication, enthusiasm and belief in a more accepting world has touched countless lives, leaving an incredible mark on our community," added Lorenzen.

WATCH: In this video interview, Dr. Marasinghe and Heather discuss Down syndrome awareness month and the Olive Branch project on North Dakota Today. 

Essentia partners with GiGi's Playhouse to launch Olive Branch project

Inspired by one of his young patients, Olive, and her family, Dr. Marasinghe wanted to help others navigate a Down syndrome diagnosis and connect them with local resources.

"When I first started seeing Olive and her family, I wasn’t familiar with additional resources in our community to help support this family," explained Dr. Marasinghe. "This curiosity led me to GiGi's Playhouse and the amazing Fargo community that is dedicated to our children with Down syndrome.

"We've since built an incredible partnership that has two primary goals: to support families that have a newborn diagnosed with Down syndrome and to build an Essentia community that’s committed to providing exceptional Down syndrome care."

As part of this project, the Essentia Health-Fargo pediatrics team worked with GiGi's Playhouse to offer the first Teddy Bear Clinic in August 2023.

group of pediatric providers with young girlTeddy bear clinics help reduce fear and anxiety for kids by providing them with a sense of control and empowerment using play surrounding their experiences at the doctor's office and in the medical environment.

Participants were able to bring their comfort items (e.g., teddy bears, dolls, stuffed animals of any kind) to the "clinic" and could register for an appointment, check their vitals, practice getting an x-ray, visit the lab for a blood draw and complete their check-up with a pediatrician. 

"This event, facilitated by over 20 Essentia employees, transformed the doctor's office into a welcoming and enjoyable space for children and their families," said Lorenzen. "Its success has inspired similar inclusive programs and partnerships nationwide."

Families interested in learning more about Essentia’s Olive Branch are encouraged to schedule an appointment online at or by calling (701) 364-8900.

GiGi's Playhouse is North Dakota's only Down syndrome Achievement Center. It provides free, educational, therapeutic and social physical therapy-based fitness programming and networking to support families and individuals of all ages with Down syndrome.

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