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23 inspiring stories of Hispanic health professionals

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Univision spoke to Latino doctors, nurses and other health care providers about what their culture means to them.
14 Oct 2016 – 12:35 AM EDT

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she’s always been proud of her culture. “We do everything with passion and ‘cariño’ (love),” she said. Her mother taught her the value of caring for others, which helps her treat patients who have heart disease, valve problems, blocked arteries and abnormal heart rhythms. “Heart disease is the number one cause of death," she said. "You’re never too young to be at risk for heart disease." Lifestyle matters, she added. "In order to enjoy your life at its fullest, exercise regularly, eat well, and know your numbers and your family’s medical history.”
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The son of Cuban immigrants, Rodriguez was born and raised in Miami, Florida. “We are a resilient culture that knows how to overcome adversity and make the best of any situation. Cubans are hard-working people with strong family values, deep rooted traditions, and of great religious faith," he said. He and his team performed NYU Langone’s first face transplant in August 2015 on Patrick Hardison, a firefighter from Senatobia, Mississippi, who was severely burned in September 2001 in the line of duty. This case is widely recognized as the most extensive procedure of its kind to date. “There is nothing that brings greater joy than to care for patients in need of surgical solutions,” he said. He plans to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with friends and family, salsa music, Cuban food and mojitos.

Guilamo-Ramos was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised by a Puerto Rican mother. "As a child growing up, I was fortunate to be immersed in a strong Latino community and culture," he said. "Being a proud Latino means knowing who you are, where you come from and being clear about your abilities and purpose in life. This was the case for me." His work has allowed him to understand why health disparities are rooted in social inequality, something he has personally experienced. "Despite my family’s resource limitations, my mother always instilled in me a strong value for educational achievement and conveyed the importance of contributing to the betterment of the Latino community,” he said. At the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health, part of his work is about education, teaching the public about the important role that families -- especially parents -- play in teen health. "Parents can make a difference by staying involved in their teens’ healthcare decision-making, communicating regularly about important health issues and building close relationships with them," he added.

For the last eight years, Pinales-Rodriguez has worked as a sort of patient advocate, assessing whether patients are ready for surgery and acting as their eyes, ears, and voice while under anesthesia. Her parents were born in Mexico, but moved to the U.S. more than 30 years ago. “I am truly proud of being Hispanic, of being part of a culture that is so rich and colorful and focuses on family, unity, rich food, and above all, integrity," she said. "As a young child, I watched my father work from sunrise to sunset to provide for our family of six. All these values, relayed to me as a child, gave me strength and determination to be the first in my family to graduate from college and have the successful nursing career I have today.” She wants to instill the same values in her 5-year-old daughter, she added.

Born in Galicia, Spain, Esteva says being proud of his Hispanic heritage is in his DNA. “It was only when I moved to the United States that I learned about the marginalization or our culture," he said. "We must reject bigotry and challenge the denigration of our culture in the U.S.” He comes from a family of doctors and pharmacists and he’s one of the few Spanish-speaking oncology professors in New York City. "I am in a unique position to educate others about the diversity of Spanish-speaking cultures in the world. I am humbled and honored to serve Spanish-speaking patients at both NYU Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital, which is the largest public hospital in New York City," he added. His recommendation to healthy women over 50 is to get a mammogram screening every year and to ”feel comfortable sharing their questions and concerns with their physician.”

Born in Argentina, Veitz-Keenan attended dental school at the University of Buenos Aires and moved to the United States to attend the NYU College of Dentistry. Almost two decades ago, she opened a dental practice in Brooklyn, where she mostly served Hispanic patients. Now, as full-time faculty member at the NYU College of Dentistry and the recent recipient of the NYU Distinguished Teaching Award, she continues to provide care to the community in need of dental health services. “Caring for people is part of my profession, and being bilingual is advantageous to communicate with patients to ease their fears and concerns," she said. "Patients are pleased when they find that I can speak with them in the same language and that Spanish is my first language.” She advises her patients to visit the dentist regularly and to use dental floss.

The youngest of six children, López comes from a family involved in healthcare: four of his siblings work in the field, including two doctors and a dentist. “Mine is the story of a Mexican immigrant family," said López. "My father immigrated as a farm worker who became a meat packer and my mother was a factory worker ... Early on I knew that my parents’ hard work and sacrifices committed me to a life of service.” As a Latino, he has been heavily influenced by the notion of familial responsibility and a focus that is more communal than individualistic. “I work to honor my parents and family,” he said. His recommendation: establish a relationship with a primary care physician and see them at least once each year. “Don't give up the good eating, exercise and health habits we learned in Latin America,” he added.

This medical doctor and clinical researcher treats children, babies and young adults who suffer from various kidney disorders and diseases. “As a native of Spain, being Hispanic and proud means building strong relationships with others like me who emigrated from Spain," she said. "This helps keep our community strong, united and preserved for our children to enjoy.” Her country has a long tradition of being on the cutting edge of medicine, and healthcare is considered a fundamental and universal right, she said. “Everyone in Spain is entitled to it. That leaves a lot of people with very good feelings towards doctors and healthcare professionals.”

“When I first moved to the United States, I barely knew anyone and my proficiency in English was low, but I was determined to become a transplant surgeon in the U.S.,” said Caicedo. Now, sixteen years later, this Colombian has extensive experience in kidney, pancreas, liver and small bowel transplantation in children and adults. He has numerous achievements, including developing the first Hispanic transplant program in the country that educates the Hispanic community about organ donation and transplantation. “I constantly see patients with hypertension, diabetes and obesity, that if not treated, can lead to organ failure which could then require a transplant later in life. Staying on top of your health and going to your doctor regularly will help prevent further issues down the road," he said.

  • Erica Torres, registered nurse, Pain Rehabilitation Center at the Mayo Clinic in Florida

“Being Hispanic and proud means never forgetting my Puerto Rican roots," said Torres, "practicing and sharing in the beautiful Puerto Rican traditions, and instilling in my children the values I was raised with: family, respect, and hard work.” She remembers her father ignoring her if she spoke or responded in English because he didn't want her to forget the Spanish language, which has become one of her greatest assets as a nurse. “It brings me great pleasure to be able to speak to a patient in Spanish and see the ease that comes over them to hear their language,” she added. At the rehabilitation center, she coordinates a three-week outpatient program focused on helping patients with chronic pain and symptoms to improve their quality of life. Led by Dr. Christopher Sletten, this team is comprised of other nurses, occupational therapists, and physical therapists. “A good psychologist does not solve your problems; he or she helps you learn tools and techniques to solve your own problems," she added.

Originally from Peru, this craniofacial surgeon focuses on reconstructive and aesthetic facial surgery in children and adults. He is an international expert who has created three, freely available multimedia plastic surgery simulators, including the Smile Train Virtual Surgery Simulator, the most widely utilized surgical simulator for cleft lip and palate reconstruction. He says he's tremendously proud to work in a field where Hispanics are, at best, thinly represented, achieving a position of leadership and serving as a role model and mentor. "Latinos are the warmest and most caring people on earth," he said. "We listen, we hug, we find the warmth in others. The human connection is what makes my job so fulfilling.” His advice: care for skin as a lifetime goal by limiting sun exposure, staying hydrated, and refraining from smoking.

Cuban-born Carlos Rosende came to the United States as a political refugee in 1961 at age six with his family and grew up in south Florida. In his current role, he directs a 700-physician medical practice: the UT Medicine San Antonio. He is proud of his parents’ success in making a new life in their adopted country. They taught him strong work ethics, independence, respect and compassion, he said. His advice is about diabetes, the most common cause of blindness among working age adults in the country. “The damage caused by diabetes to the eyes is irreversible. If you have diabetes, make sure you make every effort to control your glucose levels; weight control and healthy diet are key components for glucose control,” he said.

Born in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, she decided to become a physician after volunteering as a Spanish interpreter at a hospital in college. “I am proud to be a Mexican-American woman in surgery and hope that my accomplishments will inspire others to pursue careers in medicine,” she said. Dominguez specializes in voice and swallowing disorders in adults and children. After examining thousands of throats and voice boxes over the years, she has witnessed the detrimental effects of smoking. She recommends smokers see a physician as soon as possible if they experience persistent throat pain, voice changes, or weight loss.

  • Jairo Abreu, therapy services coordinator and senior physical therapist at NYU Lutheran

Born in the Dominican Republic, Abreu emigrated to the United States with his parents when he was six. Like so many other Hispanic immigrants, his parents worked tirelessly, sometimes with two and three jobs, to provide him the opportunities that they lacked. “They left behind their childhood friends, family, and all they knew, in pursuit of a better future for me,” he said. Last year, he started a master’s degree in public health at CUNY Hunter College with a focus on health policy and management. As a doctor of physical therapy, his goal is to restore his patients to their maximum physical performance, regardless of their injury or medical condition. “The best advice I can give is to remember that our body is the most important asset we have, and the best return on our investment we can get," he said. "You get back what you put in, so it is key to take the best care possible of it. Whether it be through stretching, resistive exercises or cardiovascular exercises, our body will benefit from it all.”

Rivera uses ultrasound waves to image parts of the human body and look for abnormalities. “Being Hispanic is the one thing I’m the most proud of," she said. "My family is from Colombia, and I’ve been raised with very strong Colombian traditions. I learned to dance to music such as salsa, merengue, and bachata at a very early age, and I have passed that love of dancing to my son.” She remembers that every time she went to doctor appointments with her mother, she served as her translator since her mother didn’t speak English. “It was rare for a medical professional to be bilingual, and I realized how nervous this made my mother feel and wondered how many other patients are out there that felt the same way as my mom," she said. "You can see this huge relief on their faces because they are able to communicate easily with me. To see their smile and feeling of comfort makes my day.”

Pascoe's mother was born in Mexico, and she spent summers in Monterrey as a child. “I believe Hispanics value family and caring for their family," she said. "My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I entered middle school and then she went to school to become a nurse. Here was a woman who raised four children and then went on to become and nurse in order to continue caring for people.” Following her mother’s example, Pascoe treats patients who are either new diabetes patients, taking insulin or organ transplant recipients. “I teach patients about how to manage their diabetes: what it means to have the condition, how to monitor their blood sugar using a home glucose meter, how to give insulin injections, the components of a heart healthy diet, and the importance of regular physical activity,” she said. Speaking Spanish helps her give her patients a sense of security and relief, she added.

Yamalis Díaz, psychologist and clinical assistant professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center

Díaz specializes in treating children and teenagers with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and disruptive behavior. “I am Puerto Rican and was raised by very proud Puerto Rican parents who ensured that we fully appreciated and maintained our cultural heritage while being raised in New Jersey," she said. "My parents always wanted me to go to college, but they didn’t know how to help me get there because they had not gone to college. However, they always instilled a sense of desire for achievement." During her education and early career, she focused her research on understanding how culture plays a role in how families of different backgrounds understand and address mental health, and she's continued this approach in her psychology practice. "Sometimes in the Latino community, we believe mental health is not a 'real issue' and there is often a stigma about getting mental health care," she said. "But just like you go see your doctor when you are not feeling physically well, you should see a professional when you’re not feeling emotionally well.”

Tavarez, whose grandparents were from Spain, works as a medical assistant for an orthopedic surgeon, helping patients with their paperwork, scheduling surgeries and physical therapy, and providing test results.“Most Hispanics come from big families – my husband and I have nine kids in total," she said. "I think having a large family has made me a people person who loves to take care of people.” Her parents came from big families, too: her mother was one of 13 children, and her father was one of six. “My parents did not complete their high school education because they had to start working at a young age to help support their family, and they had me at an early age," she added. "I have always pushed myself to do my best and take pride in all I do, in honor of all my parents and grandparents gave up for our family.” Her health tip is for young women. “Be aware of all forms of birth control and practice safe sex at all times,” she said.

This Puerto Rican says she was instilled with the qualities of a great nurse: compassion, courage, determination, love, leadership, and the drive to help. “To call myself a nurse is an immense accomplishment; however, to call myself a Hispanic nurse means so much more," she said. "I am able to bring my culture and skills to many people in many ways. I take pride in being part of a minority group and being a professional.” In her work, she helps patients at their most vulnerable moments. “I am able to see the two different spectrums of life. The gift of life and when life is taken away. I try my hardest to not get emotionally attached to my patients, but the advice I give everyone, is to enjoy life and try to look at the positive of every situation,” she said.

Born in Colombia, Brieva emigrated to the United States in 1988 to pursue medical training. He now specializes in severe skin diseases, including patients afflicted by immunobullous (blistering) disorders. He says being Hispanic has had a significant impact on his work. “We are traditionally hard-working, honest, responsible and caring people with great family values and respect for others," he said. "Our culture teaches us to have respect for the elderly and care for the sick. We are warm, friendly and uncomplicated happy people in general and our culture is rich and fascinating. I grew up in the same neighborhood of both Shakira and Sofia Vergara and my father went to school in Cartagena with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” His advice: avoid tanning beds and get a routine skin cancer screening by a healthcare professional. “Very few Hispanics actually get annual skin cancer screening exams and this causes delays for early detection of melanomas, which can be treated promptly, increasing your cure rate dramatically,” he said.

Díaz was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and has worked 12 years at the Native American Health Center. Being Hispanic means having to "work extra hard to prove my worth in this country,” she said. She is proud of being Mexican American and her ability to speak Spanish to help people in need on a daily basis. Díaz was born to a working-class family and started training as a nurse when a friend referred her for a job, even though she didn’t have any previous training. “I realized how rewarding it was to help people, and my passion for dental assisting began," she said. "Every day I come home feeling like I have made a difference in my community, because I often work with the less fortunate.”

Ramos-Gomez has more than 25 years of experience in prenatal and infant oral health. “For me, being Mexican means to have the ability to connect with families and communities, where English is a barrier," he said. "It’s not only the Spanish language, but the culture, tradition and family. Hispanic values make me proud of belonging to such a wonderful ethnicity.” He dedicates part of his time to a dental clinic located in a low-income area in California and teaches parents about the importance of taking young children to the dentist. He also teaches them that the best way to prevent tooth decay is by brushing with fluoride toothpaste.

Jaén's father died young from a preventable and treatable illness, inspiring him to try to prevent early deaths from chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Every year since 2002, he's made the list of the best doctors in America by Best Doctors, Inc. “Being Hispanic, Panamanian, and proud means being true to my heritage of excellence and passion to live my life as a vocation," he said. "It means knowing clearly what my mother often repeated: ‘Nobody is better than you, but you are not better than anyone else.'” That means treating every patient as he would treat his mother. “Every Hispanic patient for me is a Don or Doña,” he said. Jaén recommends sitting down to eat together as a family every night.
* Special thanks to Dr. Juliana J. Kim, adjunct assistant professor at the NYU College of Dentistry, who contributed gathering these testimonials.