5 Healthcare Champions to Celebrate This Hispanic Heritage Month

Members of the Hispanic/Latinx community have played a significant role in healthcare, both as innovators and carers. Whether it’s breakthrough medical research or pushing for health equity, these individuals and groups have helped improve nursing, ensure culturally competent care, advanced public health, and brought new medical treatments to the table. 

But as with many minority groups, their contributions are often unrecognized and frequently forgotten. This Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s take a moment to learn about the individuals who dedicated their lives to improving health care in communities around the world. 

5 Names to Know for Health Equity

Ildaura Murillo-Rohde, PhD, RN

Dr. Ildaura Murillo-Rohde played an instrumental role in the founding of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) in 1975. As a member of the American Nurse Association, Ildaura noticed that the ANA was not supporting the Latinx nurses around her, and she was determined to do something about it. 

Ildaura wanted to create an organization that recruited Latinos into the nursing profession. The NAHN plays a role in that goal. NAHN is the “nation’s leading professional society for Latino nurses,” and it is devoted to promoting safe, quality health care in Latino communities and to Hispanic individuals. It also supports Latino nurses in advancing their educational, professional, and leadership skills. 

Dr. Rohde’s first nursing position in the United States was in San Antonio, Texas, which boasted a huge Hispanic population. However, the proportion of Hispanic nurses was not equal to that of the community represented in San Antonio. She took her experience and desire to have healthcare workers represent the communities they served with her to the NAHN and consistently aimed for Hispanic and Latinx representation throughout her career. 

Hector Hugo Gonzalez, RN

Hector Hugo Gonzalez came from a long line of Hispanic Americans who settled in Texas. He would boast that his family “had been in this country since before Mexico was Mexico, before Texas was Texas, and before the United States was the United States!” 

After graduating from high school and attending San Antonio College, he entered nursing school. His nursing and healthcare education would span nearly two decades. He received a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin, which earned him the distinction of being the first Mexican-American registered nurse to earn a doctorate in the United States. 

While his contributions to nursing were immense, it was Hector’s determination to recruit and educate Hispanic Americans that truly left its mark. As one professor at The University of Texas at Austin proudly states: “he was acclaimed for enrolling the largest number of minority students, male students, and minority faculty in nursing at San Antonio College,” and that his contributions made it possible for every Latino nursing student at UT to be where they are today. 

Jane L. Delgado, PhD

Jane L. Delgado is a Cuban-American clinical psychologist who advocates for mental health equity organizations for Hispanic Americans. Her incredible career includes notable positions such as president of the Coalition of Spanish-Speaking Mental Health Organizations, a role on the National Biodefense Science Board, and work supporting the mental health of players in the U.S. Soccer Foundation. 

But her career is so much more than her positions. In 2000, the Ladies Home Journal named Delgado as one of seven “Women to Watch,” claiming her as one of the “unsung heroines who are forging ahead to improve our health.” She advocates for the use of technology in healthcare and putting mental health on equal status to physical health, particularly for minorities.

In the past, she played a critical role in developing the 1985 Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, also known as the Heckler Report. This report was one of the first efforts of the U.S. government to investigate racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare. Her contributions have brought awareness to minority groups who need more support and equity in healthcare. 

Severo Ochoa, MD

Born in Luarca, Spain, in 1905, Severo Ochoa spent his life studying biochemistry and the physiology of muscle. While his education began at the University of Madrid, Ochoa traveled all over the world studying creatinine and biochemistry — he traveled from Scotland to Germany, then to England and the United States. 

Some of his formative research years were spent working under Otto Meyerhof at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology, where he studied biochemistry and physiology of muscle. Of the institute, Ochoa liked to say, “One could see muscles twitching everywhere.” 

This laboratory was one of the world’s foremost biochemical facilities focused on glycolysis and fermentation, or “muscle twitch,” and Ochoa’s main subject of study was in purifying and characterizing the enzymes involved in muscle action, as well as those involved in yeast fermentation.

Ochoa’s time in the United States brought him several positions at universities across the country, where he taught pharmacology and biochemistry. His research on protein synthesis and ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid grew. In 1959, he and his colleague Arthur Kornberg were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Helen Rodríguez-Trías, MD

Helen Rodriguiz-Trias was a pediatrician, educator, and women’s rights activist in the United States. She dedicated her life to expanding public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations around the world. 

Though Helen was born in New York, she spent most of her young years in Puerto Rico. When her family returned to New York, she was just 10 years old and experienced racism and discrimination for the first time. Though she spoke beautiful English and received top marks in school, she was placed in a class with students with learning disabilities simply because of her race. 

Helen worked hard to move up and forward. Eventually, her teachers recognized her abilities and moved her to a class for gifted students. 

Throughout her medical career, Helen took these lessons from her youth and advocated for others experiencing racism and discrimination. She studied medicine in Puerto Rico, then moved back to New York where she lobbied for all workers to have a voice in administrative and patient-care issues. She tirelessly worked to help others in healthcare learn about the cultural issues and needs of minority communities and became the first Latina director of the American Public Health Association.

Helen was also an advocate for women’s rights. She advocated for the right to free abortions and the availability of birth control for low-income women. When she became aware of U.S. sterilization campaigns specifically targeting women of color, her outrage moved into the public sphere. 

She was a founding member of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the Women’s Caucus of the American Public Health Association. She fought for abortion rights, the abolishment of forced sterilization, and advocated for neonatal care for underserved communities. Her work would also expand to support women in minority groups who were infected with HIV.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton recognized her for her public health efforts by awarding her the Presidential Citizens Medal. Recognitions and positions were not what drove her, though, she said. It was “the experience of my own mother, aunts, and sisters who faced so many restraints in their struggle to flourish and realize their full potential.” 

Celebrate Hispanic History Month

This year during Hispanic History Month, celebrate those Hispanic/Latinx community healthcare professionals who have made a difference in your life. You can educate yourself, whether it’s through visiting a museum featuring Hispanic history, choosing a book on the subject, or supporting a Hispanic-owned business in your neighborhood. The more we learn about and honor our neighbors, the more equipped we are to fight racism and discrimination.