P&S Students

Student Life and Times

Homegrown Health Professionals
Washington Heights Natives Return to Study, Train, Treat, and Teach

By Adar Novak
When he was a P&S student, Carlos Rodriguez would walk from 168th Street to visit his mother on 193rd Street. The walk was cathartic and reminded him that “having that connection with the community was always a big part of me.”
   The community connection continues: Dr. Rodriguez — now Carlos Rodriguez, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of clinical medicine and clinical epidemiology — has been at the medical center since 1992, about 95 percent of the patients in his cardiology practice are from Northern Manhattan, and his research focuses on hypertensive heart disease in Hispanics.
From left: Felicia Rosario, Julie Gonzalez, Carlos Rodriguez’96,
Wilson Quezada’07, and Crissaris Sarnelli

   “It’s been a strength of Columbia to reach out to the community and let the community reach out to it,” he says. “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 from the community has made it very easy to stick around all these years.”
   “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 Washington Heights residents into the medical center, whether as employees, patients, or research participants. The progress has made it easier for second-year students Felicia Rosario and Julie Gonzalez, first-year student 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 Ms. Rosario served as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients during her first-year clerkship, she encountered a family that had previously spent hours trying to get through what is routinely a 45-minute appointment. With Ms. Rosario’s help, the family was able to better understand the medical jargon used by the physician and, she hopes, left with more confidence in the doctor’s quality of care.
   “They were so happy someone was there to help them communicate,” Ms. Rosario says. “The mom kept saying, ‘We need more of you around.’”
   A Harvard graduate, Ms. Rosario serves as president of BALSO — the Black and Latino Student Organization — which is 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,” Ms. Rosario says. “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.”

I acknowledge and recognize that I didnt get to where I am on my own. 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, Ms. Gonzalez had limited exposure to the medical field, and no one in her family had been a physician. After attending Wellesley as an undergraduate and pursuing a successful career in finance, Ms. Gonzalez 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.
   Ms. Sarnelli also made it a priority to return to her childhood neighborhood and reach out. 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. 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 P&S 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 the Dominican Republic 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 their numbers.
   “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 I’m trying to treat.”