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Maribel Diaz

Strategy and Planning, City of Hope

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Latina Empowerment: My Journey to Help Others Through a Career in Healthcare

08/29/2013 07:10AM | 23741 views

I recently marked two years at City of Hope, and as I noted this personal milestone I began to reflect back on the journey that got me here. As a Latina, as a woman, and as a daughter of immigrants from humble beginnings, it was not exactly preordained that I would be working in strategy and planning at City of Hope one day.

Or maybe it was…

When I look back, it occurs to me that the seed was planted at a very young age by my parents – who probably had no idea at the time the impression they were making on me or the impact their actions would have. Originally from small towns nestled in Durango, Mexico, my parents came to the United States in 1989. Though they assimilated to life here like many of their generation, they never quite overcame their skepticism about the medical profession in the U.S.

In Mexico, becoming a doctor is considered a noble profession; one where helping other people, especially within the local community, is the primary objective. Though the same may be said for those pursuing a medical career in the U.S., that may not always be apparent. Skyrocketing medical bills and insurance premiums paint a different picture, and unfortunately doctors are painted with the same broad brush.

For my parents, that meant a basic mistrust of doctors here and a belief that caring for patients came a distant second to making money. Doctors here, they thought, were in the business of selling healthcare, pushing unnecessary treatments and overprescribing medications. On top of that, a language barrier meant potential miscommunication and a fear of misdiagnosis.

And so, even though we had healthcare coverage, my parents were adamant about taking my siblings—an older sister, twin sister, and younger brother—and me back to their roots in Mexico for routine checkups and minor ailments. This is where they felt most comfortable, with doctors who had earned their trust and with whom they could communicate clearly because they spoke the same language.

On these trips, we saw how much more open our parents were with the Mexican doctors, not afraid to speak up and ask questions where their children’s health was concerned. We also saw how proud our parents were of these doctors—in this noble profession of helping others—and for us they became early role models.

At the same time, it awakened in us an understanding that there was a great need for Latino doctors back in the United States – people who looked like us, knew our issues and spoke our language.

My older sister was the first in our family to answer this call. She always wanted to be a physician, and I’m sure our early experience with healthcare and our parents’ attitude had much to do with this. In 2000, she had the opportunity to attend the annual National Hispanic Youth Initiate (NHYI) in Washington D.C. Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this program is available to Hispanic youth interested in a career in healthcare, and it exposes them to everything from health sciences and biomedical research to policy development and administration.

It was an eye-opening experience for my sister, not just learning about all the possibilities the health field had to offer – but also finding herself for the first time surrounded by other Latinos who shared her passion for healthcare and helping others. From that moment on, her path was set, and she eventually ventured on to Harvard Medical School. Today she is a successful doctor practicing in the department of Family and Community Medicine at San Francisco’s General Hospital.

My twin sister and I soon followed in our older sister’s footsteps – literally – when we too attended the NHYI. It was the first time I heard about such topics as public health, health administration and policy development as career options in the healthcare industry. Up until then, I thought there were two basic options: doctor or dentist (and I planned to be the latter). Now I saw that there were many other opportunities to make a difference in my chosen field, and I returned from the event more motivated than ever.

After high school, my twin sister went off to Harvard to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the History of Science and eventually a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government with an emphasis on health policy. I began my journey at Stanford and, as a new student, I made a strong effort to seek out mentors. I had the good fortune to find someone I had met at the program I attended in Washington, D.C. At the time, he was a Stanford Medical School student, and he encouraged me to follow my passion and pursue a career in healthcare.

I sought mentors throughout my educational journey, eventually crossing paths with a professor and researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine. She was instrumental in my decision to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Berkeley, a school I had never considered before. Overall, my mentors’ belief in me and unconditional support emboldened me to face my fears and overcome any lingering doubts I might have. This is why it’s so important to find mentors, and why I try to be a good mentor myself. Telling others about my journey and how I discovered public health as a career is one way to give back to the community that supported me along the way and extend a hand to those coming after me.

It’s important to promote healthcare as a viable career choice for Hispanics because there’s such a need for them in the industry. We can bring a unique perspective that reflects the growth of the Hispanic population and understands the community we are serving; we can be a voice for Hispanic patients and serve as their advocates; and we can be role models and mentors for future generations in all areas of healthcare.

Not only does the industry offer numerous opportunities to help others, it provides a certain level of job security and economic stability not found in most fields – because there will always be a need for healthcare and that need affects everyone. For Latinos wanting to change the conversation and lead the direction of the industry, there will be unprecedented opportunities to advance into senior roles. I’ve seen it happening already, even in my short time in the industry since graduation; for Hispanics, the pipeline is working and the pipeline is growing. As I look back, I realize my parents had an influence on me that goes much deeper than my career choice. Their support and sacrifices motivated me to pursue higher education and enabled me to persevere through the long nights of study. They never gave up, and neither would I.

Today, in my role as strategist at City of Hope, their influence inspires me to motivate others in the same way, and reminds me not to become too far removed from the community and the issues I want to help with, including matters of health disparities in minority groups.

For their part, time and experience have made my parents a little less skeptical, though they still seek out doctors who speak their language and share their cultural values. Earning trust and loyalty from those in the community like my parents will require not just more Latino doctors, but doctors across the board who are educated about issues affecting the community and understand how culture, customs and upbringing influence the ways people deal with illness.

For those just starting out on this journey, here are a few parting words of advice:

• You can never start learning about career options and networking too early. My sisters and I made contacts at the National Hispanic Youth Initiative who inspired us throughout our academic careers and continue to inspire us today as we work in our chosen professions.

• Find mentors you identify with and feel comfortable opening up to, even if they’re only two or three years ahead of you. They are where you want to be in a few years and can help you get there with a little less trepidation.

• Remember the value of delayed gratification. Though you might want to start working as soon as possible, especially to help support family and community, the longer you stay in school and the higher you are able to climb, the more you will be able to give back and the bigger the harvest you will have to share.


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