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Video: Episode 4: Helen Rodríguez Trías

Published on · Last Updated 3 years 5 months ago


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Presented by: Meghan Grubb, MA, MS


Introductory Slide

Welcome to Episode Four of the Diverse Scientist Highlights Series! If you have not yet watched our Introductory Episode for this series, please do so before watching this episode. Our Introductory Episode defines diversity and the importance of having a diverse work force. It also explains why we created the Diverse Scientist Highlights series. Be sure to check it out before continuing!

Slide Two

Episode four of the Diverse Scientist Highlights series will feature Helen Rodriguez Trias, a pediatrician, educator, and women’s rights activist.

Slide Three

Helen was born in New York in 1929, but quickly moved to Puerto Rico with her family, which is where she spent her early years. Originally from Puerto Rico, her parents returned to their home land because Helen’s mother could not obtain a teaching license because she was bilingual. However, at the age of 10, Helen returned to New York with her family. Although she had good grades and knew how to speak English, she was placed in classes with students who had learning disabilities. It wasn’t until she participated in a poem recital that her teacher soon realized that Helen should be placed in a gifted class. Years later, in 1948, she returned to Puerto Rico to attend college, where she became involved in activism. Helen’s brother, who was helping her financially, threatened to cut off her expenses, which caused Helen to travel back to New York without her degree. She decided to go back to Puerto Rico a couple of years later to complete her undergraduate degree. Helen then re-enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico to study medicine and obtained her medical degree with highest honors in 1960. Also during this year, Helen gave birth to her fourth child.

Slide Four

During Helen’s residency at the University of San Juan, she established Puerto Rico’s first center for newborn babies, reducing the hospital’s child mortality rates by half within three years. In 1970, she returned to New York where she became the director of pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital, which allowed her to serve a largely Puerto Rican population. Helen worked to raise awareness of cultural issues in the Puerto Rican community amongst healthcare workers.

Slide Five

With Helen’s activism and commitment to increase healthcare for the Puerto Rican community, there is no question why we are highlighting Helen as our fourth diverse scientist.

Slide Six

During her lifetime, Helen made a tremendous impact on communities who didn’t otherwise have a voice. She took on sterilization issues. Women who were poor, of color, and with physical disabilities were far more likely to be sterilized than white middle class women. Between 1938 and 1968, nearly a third of child-bearing women in Puerto Rico were sterilized by their physicians without being informed of the consequences. Helen founded the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse. In 1979, she was integral in the passing of the federal sterilization guidelines that required all physicians to receive written consent from their patients before proceeding with a sterilization procedure. The guidelines also mandated that physicians provide a waiting period for women to take time to make a rational decision about receiving the procedure. Helen also took on work involving AIDS. In the 1980s, she was the medical director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute where she specialized in the treatment for women and children who contracted HIV.

Slide Seven

For her dedication to the healthcare of the Puerto Rican community and of women, Helen became the first Hispanic President of the American Public Health Association. Also, she founded the Women’s Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the American Public Health Association. In 2001, she received the presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV/AIDS, and the poor, which is captured in the photo on the right. On July 7, 2018, she was featured in a google doodle, which you can also see on the right of the screen.

Slide Eight

As a fellow Puerto Rican, Helen recognized the disparity of her people. As a women, she knew firsthand the disadvantages herself and other women faced. Throughout her career, Helen strived to meet the needs of underserved and disadvantaged populations. We recognize Helen’s contribution to medicine, healthcare, and to the populations she so graciously served. Before we end this episode, I want to leave you with some profound words said by Helen. She remarked, “I hope I’ll see in my lifetime a growing realization that we are one world. No one is going to have quality of life unless we support everyone’s quality of life. Not on a basis of do-goodism, but because of a real commitment. It’s our collective and personal health that’s at stake.” That concludes our fourth episode of the Diverse Scientist Highlights series.