Hispanic Heritage Month: Latinx Pioneers in Medicine

“Hispanic Heritage month is important to me because of my father,” says Kayla Nuñez, an Administrative Assistant at The Breast Center. “My dad came to the United States from Mexico when he was just 14 years old with the intention of creating a better life for himself and the children he hoped to one day have.  My dad came to this country and worked hard (he’s still the hardest working person I know) to create this life for himself, my mom and me and my brothers.  I’ll forever be thankful for the sacrifices my dad made for me long before I even existed.  I love hearing his stories about growing up in Mexico and I enjoy learning about Mexican culture and traditions.  I’m proud of my heritage and where my family comes from!  It’s so important to me to stay connected to my heritage and celebrating Hispanic Heritage month is one of many ways to do that!”

“Describing Hispanic Heritage Month, language is very important,” says Nayeli, a Registered Medical Assistant at MANA Family Medicine in Springdale. “It is part of the culture. It defines the community and provides a very strong connection among all of us. But being Hispanic goes beyond language. It’s important to let everyone know that regardless of our race or culture were all humans who have the same needs and desires.”

People of Hispanic heritage have lived in what is now the United States since Spain’s conquest of the New World in the 150os. Yet there were still many firsts in Hispanic American medical history in the 20th and 21st centuries. During Hispanic Heritage month, September 15th through October 15th, we celebrate the Latinx pioneers of medicine.

Here are a few:

José Celso Barbosa was the first person from Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) to graduate from medical school in the United States. He joined the Red Cross and treated soldiers in the Spanish-American War. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he developed the idea of employer-sponsored health insurance and founded the first Credit Union in the Western Hemisphere, inspired by the poverty among his patients. Determined to help with the problems he saw, he founded a newspaper in 1907, and served in the Puerto Rico Senate until 1921. 

Ildaura Murillo-Rohde founded the National Association of Hispanic Nurses in 1975. A researcher and a nurse, Murillo-Rhode received a Fellowship from the American Academy of Nursing. She was a trailblazer in nursing: the first Hispanic nurse awarded a PhD from New York University and the first Hispanic Dean of Nursing at SUNY. She was named a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing in 1994 and served as a representative to UNICEF. 

Antonia C. Novello was the first woman to serve as Surgeon General, and the first Hispanic person to do so. She achieved this position in 1990, after 20 years at the National Institutes of Health. There, she served as deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. As Surgeon General, Novello continued to advocate for children’s health. One of her best-known campaigns was the fight against cartoon characters like Joe Camel, which made smoking appealing to kids.

Helen Rodríguez Trías was a champion of women’s rights and patient education. She was the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association, which gives a social justice award in her name each year. Rodriguez-Trias was an activist for equal rights in healthcare for women. “Public health is really about people’s life conditions and how these conditions do or do not promote health,” she said. She received a Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001.

Eric Salazar grew up in South Texas, the son of farm workers. Fewer than 6% of practicing physicians are Hispanic, and Salazar is one of that small group. He is a physician and researcher at Houston Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, working with COVID-19 patients. He was the lead investigator in a study of using convalescent plasma therapy to treat COVID-19. This treatment was used in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and shows promise for the coronavirus as well. 

At MANA, we celebrate our team members every day. We are pleased to take this opportunity to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

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