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10/31/2018 Mia A. Garchitorena Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities

Julia Ramirez: Winner of the 2018 Wholeness of Life Award

Julia Ramirez's story has come full circle. It starts in childhood, when she acted as interpreter for her Spanish-speaking family in Queens, and continues to her present role as Community Outreach Manager for MSK's Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities (IHCD) service. At IHCD, Julia and her colleagues work to identify and eliminate disparities in health and cancer treatment among immigrants and minority patients. In fact, Julia has been helping to bridge the gulf between newcomers to this country and the opportunities that await them her entire life. It is part of the reason she was chosen as the recipient of the 2018 Wholeness of Life Award, an honor given to those who "demonstrate respect for human beings as whole persons in the treatment of patients."

Julia is humbled by her award and the patients she has helped over the years. The memory of one client at the IHCD is particularly vivid: A patient with metastatic breast cancer came to the IHCD office after hearing about the weekly food pantry program. She was from Ecuador and was struggling financially while her husband applied for legal status in the United States. 

Before leaving Julia's office, the patient asked when the food pantry program would be open next. Julia told her she didn't have to wait until the next pantry day to get food. 

"When I brought her a bag of food, she started to cry," she says. "She said to me, 'Had I not come here today and met with you, my family wouldn't have eaten today. We have nothing left.'" 

"I thought to myself, 'This is why we do the work that we do.'" 

Dedicated to Others

Julia Ramirez has spent more than a decade working in healthcare and assisting immigrant and underserved communities in New York City. She works tirelessly to help patients access and obtain basic goods and services, such as food, and with the assistance of the outreach staff, help patients secure health insurance, transportation, psychosocial support, childcare, legal advice, and other resources. 

"We go out into the community and create really great programming for folks who feel like they don't have a voice, or don't have access to these services," she says. "Everyone needs help sometimes." 

Despite the many patients she has helped, she is shocked that her MSK colleagues nominated her.  

"When they came to give me the award, I looked behind me!" Julia says with a laugh. "I said, 'This can't be, I'm not even a physician!'"

Seeking Asylum

To escape civil war in their native El Salvador, Julia's family sought asylum in the United States. In October 1980, three-year-old Julia, her two younger brothers, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother moved to Elmhurst, Queens. 

As the oldest child in an immigrant family, Julia had to take on big responsibilities at an early age. She acted as the family's interpreter and helped them with daily activities: filling out forms, assisting with her brothers' homework, accompanying her family to doctors' appointments or weekend English classes, navigating the subway, doing the grocery shopping, and helping her grandmother open a bank account and use an ATM machine for the first time.

"I was their security blanket and they knew as long as I was there with them, no matter what the situation, they could count on me," Julia says.  

True Calling

In 1996, Julia left home for the first time to attend Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in international studies and went on to receive her master's in American government and politics from St. John's University.

While attending graduate school, she pursued part-time internship opportunities in government, politics, and public administration, and even dabbled in healthcare marketing for medical conferences. A turning point came when she interned at Senator Hillary Clinton's office, where she worked on healthcare services and immigration issues among many non-English speaking communities. The experience gave her a new career direction.

"I thought, 'Well, I speak Spanish and I've been helping my own family for years around these issues, so why not try to find a job that combines the two?'"  

In 2004, she became a Program Assistant at New York University (NYU) in the Community Tuberculosis Prevention Program. She and her team visited new immigrant high schools to educate students and community members about tuberculosis, test them for the disease and help them navigate follow-up appointments and medications if they tested positive. 

While at NYU, she met and worked with Francesca Gany, MD, her current director at MSK, who became an important mentor. 

Breaking Down Barriers

When Dr. Gany was recruited to become Chief of IHCD, she asked Julia to join her at MSK. Julia followed soon afterwards and was recruited to MSK in January 2011 to be the Community Outreach Manager for the IHCD.

She has worked with numerous external organizations such as hospitals, community- and faith-based organizations, the Food Bank of New York City, the New York Immigration Coalition, New York Legal Assistance Groups, and the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality at MSK to work on the needs of non-English speaking patients and to deliver health and language-based services to patients in need. Most notably, she has been a leader of the Food to Overcome Outcome Disparities (FOOD) program at MSK and oversees eight food pantries in NYC. 

"She has such a profound ability to connect with people and their humanity," Dr. Gany says. "It is what makes her unique. People don't necessarily feel comfortable coming forward, but she is able to make bridges and establish a zone of safety."

Julia also directs the Integrated Cancer Care Access Network (ICCAN), which guides patients who are diagnosed with cancer through their treatment journey. ICCAN provides case management to more than 600 patients with cancer at 11 hospitals in NYC. Julia and her team go out to different hospitals, assist patients in their preferred language, connect them to available resources, and help them with their non-medical needs.  

She is also dedicated to the Hispanic community and has collaborated with the Mexican Consulate's Ventanillas de Salud program, which refers Mexican nationals to healthcare services in the United States and Mexico. 

Coming Full Circle

Julia has taken the words of Dr. Gany to heart: "Remember to always treat our patients the way we would want our family members to be treated." Though the IHCD's work is often challenging, she reminds her staff to treat their patients like family. 

Looking back, Julia says that taking on a supportive role for her own family has motivated her to help others who experience language barriers and to give back to immigrant communities in a special way.

"I always had such strong women in my life who, although they did not speak English, always taught me not to be afraid to ask questions and make sure that we were able to access what we needed," she says. "That is why I say it's truly no mistake that I ended up doing this type of work. It really has shaped who I have become and helped me understand what our patients might need." 

Congratulations, Julia, on this tremendous award and thank you for your great work!  

Julia Ramirez

Julia Ramirez

Julia Ramirez speaking at MSK

Julia Ramirez speaking at MSK

Julia Ramirez winning the Wholeness of Life Award

Julia Ramirez winning the Wholeness of Life Award

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