Breaking Down Barriers. Saving Lives.
My path into medicine actually began quite a distance from Northwestern, in Bogota, Colombia. I began my surgical training at the National University of Colombia, the largest public university in Colombia.
Much of the work we did was serving the poorest population in Bogota. At the time, we did not have a transplant program in our hospital, as no one was trained to perform these types of procedures. It was heartbreaking to bear witness to these health care disparities. I lost patients who may have been able to make a recovery from a kidney or liver transplant, but it just wasn’t an option.
This is what truly motivated me to become trained in organ transplantation. I realized I needed more formal training and I would need to leave my home in Colombia to do so.
The language barrier was one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in order to get the transplantation training. I needed to learn English. So, I began learning in my home country and then made my way to Indiana University, where I studied only English for two months.
During my time in Indiana, my friends and I decided to take a trip to Chicago. We were taking a trolley downtown, as tourists do, when I saw Northwestern University. I turned to my friend and said, “Hey, you go have fun at Navy Pier, I’m going to go after my dreams.”
I literally walked over to Feinberg and knocked on the door leading to the reception area of the Division of Organ Transplantation. I had no jacket, no tie. I asked to speak with the chief, Dr. Stuart. An administrator asked if I had a CV to show him. I told them I didn’t have one on me, but I did have it on a floppy disk in my camera bag. She then kindly printed out my CV and gave it to Dr. Stuart. I was told he was busy at the moment, but if I could just wait for one hour he would see me. Are you kidding me? I would have waited days for the opportunity to speak with him!
An hour or so later, Dr. Stuart came to meet me, along with our current chief Dr. Abecassis. Again, I was a tourist who spoke very little English, but I shared with them my goals of formal transplantation training and that I was currently learning English. They so kindly listened to what I had to say and explained that they would certainly consider me once I had everything I needed for the application.
It took me three years, but I finally passed all the necessary tests, received the license and certifications I needed to train in the United States, and was accepted into the program at Northwestern.
During my training at Northwestern, I came to realize that there were many Hispanics on the waiting list for organ transplantation and they were struggling due to cultural and language barriers. I dreamed of being the one to help bridge this cultural gap, in order for them to receive the access to health care they needed.
Once I finished my training, I was offered the opportunity to join the team at Northwestern’s transplant program. I felt so honored to be able to join one of the best transplant programs in the country, even the world. I was also so excited for the chance to give back to my community.
With full support from Dr. Abecassis and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, I developed the country’s first Hispanic transplant program. Today, our team has more than twenty people on staff, all of whom are bilingual and bicultural, allowing us to offer a truly comprehensive and culturally competent health care program for our transplant patients.
The success of the Hispanic transplant program has been so exciting. After six years of the program’s launch in 2006 we have seen a huge growth (91%) in the number of Hispanics added to the kidney transplant waiting list. The number of living kidney donor transplants has increased by 74% and the number of deceased kidney donor transplants has increased by 62%. Plus, the disparity of living donor kidney donation has decreased by 70% (p value <0.001), when we compare Hispanic Americans with non-Hispanic Whites. Every day we’re working towards decreasing the health care disparities for Hispanics. Everything in our transplant program that is available to non-Hispanics, is now available to Hispanics, including research.
I believe our Hispanic transplant program truly represents the spirit of Northwestern. I fell in love with Northwestern the first day I knocked on the door as a tourist with big dreams. I continue to feel passionate every day about the opportunity I have been given to pay that kindness forward by helping the Hispanic population with our program.