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April 1, 2008

Washington Heights Natives Return to Study Medicine
and Give Back to the Community

When he was a student at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S) at Columbia University, Carlos Rodriguez would walk from 168th Street, where he spent most of his days and nights studying, to visit his mother on 193rd Street. The walk was cathartic and reminded him that “having [a] connection with the community was always a big part of me.”

Professor Robert Barnett
From left, Felicia Rosario, Julie Gonzalez, Carlos Rodriguez ’96, Wilson Quezada ’07 and Crissaris Sarnelli.
Photo by ?????

Today, he is a doctor giving back to the community where he was raised. Since 1992, Rodriguez, MD, MPH, has been at P&S focusing on hypertensive heart disease among Hispanics and where he is assistant professor of clinical medicine and clinical epidemiology. His patients are also his neighbors—about 95 percent of patients under his care are from the surrounding Washington Heights area where P&S is located or from other neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan.

“The fact that so many people from the community work at the medical center and so many patients and people participating in research studies are also from the community has made it very easy to stick around all these years,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

Although only a small percentage of the medical center community is made up of physicians or students from the neighborhood, some progress has been made in bringing in Washington Heights residents, whether as employees, patients or research participants. This progress has made it easier for medical students Felicia Rosario, Julie Gonzalez, and Crissaris Sarnelli, and Wilson Quezada, M.D., first-year internal medicine resident, to return to the neighborhood where they grew up.

Their return has resulted in collective involvement in efforts to recruit, retain and support physicians and students from underrepresented minority groups in medicine in general and Washington Heights natives in particular.

When Felicia Rosario, a second-year student, served as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients during her first-year clerkship, she met a family that had previously spent hours trying to get through what is routinely a 45-minute appointment. With her help, the family was better able to understand the complicated medical terms used by the physician.

They were so happy someone was there to help them communicate,” Rosario said. “The mom kept saying, ‘We need more of you around.’”

A Harvard graduate, Rosario serves as president of BALSO—the Black and Latino Student Organization—dedicated to the recruitment, support and graduation of students from ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine and the health sciences through tutoring, mentoring and educational and cultural events. She also volunteers with the Lang Youth Medical Project, a six-year, New York-Presbyterian Hospital-run educational and mentoring project for middle and high school students interested in health care careers.

“I acknowledge and recognize that I didn’t get to where I am on my own,” she said. “The students who came before me had a difficult time getting to this point, and I want to make it easier for those who come after me.”

Growing up in Washington Heights, Julie Gonzalez, also a second-year student, had limited exposure to the medical field. After attending Wellesley as an undergraduate and pursuing a successful career in finance, she saw the opportunity to serve her community by enrolling in P&S. Also a volunteer in the Lang Program and vice president of BALSO, she believes in the importance of cultural competence in the practice of medicine.

“Having grown up in Washington Heights, coming back to attend P&S has not only made it easier for me to study and work here, but it also will enable me to relate to any underserved community. I hope my own experiences translate into the skill of relating to people from diverse communities and backgrounds, no matter the location,” she says.

First-year student Crissaris Sarnelli also made it a priority to return to her childhood neighborhood. The Yale graduate is a BALSO member and promotes better health for local children through a weekly fitness program at the Armory. “I always knew that as a doctor I wanted to serve in disadvantaged areas, and I knew that my neighborhood was such an area,” she says. “Columbia gives us the opportunity to explore several facets of medicine with a diverse patient population and, at the same time, benefit the community members who are able to receive medical care near their home.”

Dr. Wilson Quezada, a 2007 P&S graduate and a first-year resident in internal medicine, was born in the Dominican Republic and raised mostly in Washington Heights. He felt he was “coming full-circle and would be comfortable and understand the patient population” at Columbia.

He enrolled in P&S after attending Brown and became active in student recruitment right away. Dr. Quezada and his roommate helped recruit additional minority students by welcoming them with a brunch in their apartment, and they followed up with potential P&S students from minority populations.

He and his classmates forged a relationship with a local Dominican community group to organize a workshop about the home remedies that patients from their home country use, giving medical students a greater understanding of their culture and practices. Now Dr. Quezada is a member of the Lindenbaum/Thomson Society, a group of minority residents who work closely with faculty mentors and try to increase numbers of diverse students and faculty.

“We’re at a point where, especially in medicine, we’re now starting to realize the importance of the cultural aspects of people’s illnesses,” he says. “Being from the same cultural background does put me at an advantage compared to my peers, but it has also made me rethink my definition of illness. A patient is more than biology and physiology. We try to look at the context of the patient as a whole, because sometimes, to the patient, cultural and socioeconomic issues are even more important than the illness.”

 – Special article by Adar Novak from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, part of the Columbia University Medical Center. Original article is from the Winter 2008 issue of P&S Journal.