A Latina Looks at Disparities

HMS and Beyond?

by | Dec 12, 2000

Artist Juan Sánchez creates the illustration “Soles y flor para Liora” (“Suns and a flower for Liora”) (1997).

It was my first year of medical school in a new city far from home. I came to Harvard Medical School in the fall of 1999 with many preconceived notions of what I would encounter. Coming from a public school University system in California, I had mixed feelings of what my experiences would be like at a private Ivy League school. Considering the lack of minorities at institutions of higher learning throughout the nation, I feared the majority of my classmates, staff, faculty, professors and doctors would be white men. I was very pleased and surprised to see that indeed there were Latin@s and many other minorities among my classmates. However, I was disappointed to see that there were too few Latinas. Throughout my first semester, I felt something was missing in my experiences and the people that surrounded me. As one of the few Latinas in my class, I felt the need to be in touch with the Latin@ community: to encounter Latin@ physicians and professors as role models; to discuss issues related to health disparities affecting the Latin@ communities; to see that clinical and scientific research was being conducted within the Latin@ communities; and to feel that an overall awareness of the disparities affecting Latin@s in medicine today would somehow be addressed. Unfortunately, I found myself searching for these experiences outside of the medical school.

In my quest to find some type of balance in my medical school experience, I first volunteered at a hospital as a translator for Spanish-speaking patients. I immediately felt welcomed by the small, understaffed interpreter service team that desperately needed the help. Because there are not enough physicians and staff at the hospitals that speak Spanish, the interpreters rotate from floor to floor looking for the Spanish-speaking patients to help them communicate with their physicians to better understand their medical condition and treatments. The patients I interacted with were initially surprised to see a Latina in a white coat, yet, they were very excited and grateful to see someone that could understand and communicate with them better than their own physicians could. Although I knew that these patients were excited to see a Latina training to become a physician, I was disturbed by the fact that it is still a rarity and surprise to see Latin@s in the medical profession, especially as doctors and scientists. I believe that it is extremely important to have many more Latin@s as physicians that can better understand and be sensitive to a completely different culture with varied traditions and value systems that affect patient care on many levels.

One day, when I wandered into an elderly Puerto Rican patient’s room, I immediately saw joy upon his face as I greeted him in Spanish. He did not speak any English and often spent his days essentially isolated. His family would provide some support, but their need to work long hours kept them from lengthy visits. I befriended this patient and learned more about his Puerto Rican customs, his many struggles in life confronting poverty, language barriers and now his medical condition. We formed an exchange of cultures as he learned more about El Salvador and my experiences. This and many other patient encounters brought me a tremendous amount of fulfillment knowing that I had helped patients feel comfortable by listening to their fears and concerns.

As I continued to volunteer at the hospital, the Latin@ patients I encountered encouraged me with their sincere words to continue with my studies, become the best doctor I could be, and to never forget about the Latin@ community, especially the poor. Most importantly, they encouraged me to become a leader and role model for others. I took these words to heart and immediately looked for another Latin@ organization and became a mentor to a young Latina. When I was young, I was fortunate to have an older sister to guide me through her mistakes to become the person I am today. I know how it is important to have someone inspire you with new challenges and experiences, especially for young people living in disenfranchised communities where role models seem nonexistent.

At Sociedad Latina, a non-profit youth organization in Roxbury, I became a mentor and role model to a young Latina in high school. Soon after assuming this role, I accepted a position as a Mentoring Program Coordinator for the agency. During this year I spent with the organization, we developed a new mentoring program for boys ages 14-18, called Viva La Cultura! Club to address a need for these young Latin@s from Roxbury to encounter positive and enriching experiences with Latin@s in college and at the professional level. These youth had similar backgrounds to my own, but without the opportunities I have today: their environments had failed them. Crime, drugs, negative stereotypes, racism, and lack of opportunities are an every day reality for these youth. They had no one to look to as role models, let alone dream of one day becoming a physician, lawyer, writer, musician or anything other than another statistic, as one particular youth feared would become of his future. With this knowledge, I strongly felt the need to help guide them towards a more promising future. I recruited Latin@ mentors for these young boys, organized speaker presentations, spoken word sessions, a self-defense session that focused on dealing with violence, and more importantly, I encouraged them to set goals and have dreams of their own. It was important for me to demonstrate to these youth that Latin@s are successful, that we are in colleges, and that we are capable of becoming much more than mere statistics in research journals who relegate large proportions of the Latin@ population to prisons, the judicial system, as drop outs, and spawning the burden of diseases.

Although I had turned to these communities for answers to the questions I posed and to fulfill the need to have a sense of a Latin@ community at HMS, I was still not satisfied. I was not satisfied because I felt that I had to remove myself from HMS to encounter these rewarding experiences. Other important issues related to health disparities in minority communities, were still not being addressed at the medical school. As such, I became involved in a student subcommittee to enhance our medical school curriculum by addressing issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and social class. The committee looks at issues of cultural competence in the curriculum to identify gaps and teaching opportunities that will address the needs of all patients, especially those traditionally not represented. As a culturally diverse group of students, we have proposed ways to integrate clinical and scientific information with actual social and political issues we will be confronted with as physicians. We hope that within our curriculum, such issues as race, socioeconomic status, environment, and demographics affecting differential outcomes of clinical care will be adequately addressed.

Finally, to bring a stronger sense of a Latin@ community to HMS, I became the Co-Director for another student organization, Medical Students of Las Americas. MeSLA is a student council group that is dedicated to the empowerment of the Latin@ Community within the Boston and New England area. As a student group MeSLA hopes to achieve this goal via a multifaceted approach that includes academic support, education about social and health-related issues concerning the Latin@ population, community projects for the undeserved, and the recruitment of Latin@s to the Harvard Medical/Dental School. MeSLA also organizes social and cultural events to celebrate and promote awareness of the great diversity that exists in the Latin@ communities of the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. My main reason for taking on this role was to bring about an overall awareness of the many issues Latinas/os encounter and expose the richness and diversity of our culture and people.

Throughout last year and now that I am in my second year of medical school I hope to continue the process of contributing to the overall enhancement of my medical school experience as well as my classmates by bringing relevant issues of disparities across many levels, among diverse populations, and in particular within the Latin@ communities to the forefront. I finally realized that I was at the right place to bring about this overall awareness of underserved communities. I have been able to find people that are willing to listen and guide me through this process. I have found non-Latin@ classmates with a similar interest and passions to address these same issues of inequalities. I have even found a Latina physician who has become a mentor to me. Most importantly, I realized that in order to confront issues of race and ethnic disparities one must persevere when faced with obstacles, find a means to eliminate preconceived notions of certain groups, and take on the challenge of advocating for all those from underserved communities encountering inequalities that still pervade the medical establishment today.

Fall 2000


Grace López, a second year student at Harvard Medical School, interested in addressing issues of health disparities, especially among Latin@ communities. She is co-director of Medical Students of Las Americas (MeSLA), which recently raised $562.50 for the Pedro Kouri Insitute in Cuba to improve the lives of HIV/AIDS patients in Cuba.

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