From Undocumented Immigrant to Surgeon: Coming Full Circle to Serve My Community
Posted October 5, 2023
By Carolina Solis Sanabria, M.D., M.P.H., FACS
Physician (Research), Program Official
Division of Clinical and Health Services Research, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
Returning to the Washington D.C. area to do health disparities work at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) and practice as a general surgeon at Holy Cross Hospital has been an opportunity to return to my community and my roots. I get an amazing opportunity to tackle health problems at the systemic/public health level as a program official at NIMHD. I also have the immense privilege of making an impact on individuals as a community general surgeon serving patients who are underserved. The combination of surgery and health disparities research reflects my personal experiences and passions.
As a 4-year-old girl, my family and I crossed the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas. We quickly learned the challenges that came with being undocumented in the United States. Growing up, my family had limited access to health care—rarely seeing a doctor unless it was an emergency. Given these challenges, my family was quick to instill in me the value of getting an education.
It did not take much convincing on my family’s part for me to engage in academic pursuits. Early on, I developed a love for the medical sciences and in particular surgery given my love for human anatomy. I was always very curious about learning about how things work, and I got my first exposure to research in high school after winning a summer internship at the National Cancer Institute. In college, at Yale University, I studied Hookworm disease, a disease that is prevalent in low- and middle-income countries and contracted by walking barefoot on contaminated soil. After graduating from Yale, I was accepted into Harvard Medical School. I continued my interest in research and spent a summer in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, doing a prevalence study on intestinal parasites. These experiences led to my interest in health disparities research.
Photo of Dr. Carolina Solis Sanabria at the Cerro Negro Volcano in Leon, Nicaragua where she did a prevalence study on intestinal parasites.
Even though I had a strong interest in parasitology, I ultimately reverted to my original passion for surgery. One of my mentors was a surgeon who was doing global health work. It was exposure to this surgeon that showed me that I could merge my interests in surgery and health disparities research. As a result, in the middle of my residency at Duke University, I returned to Harvard University to pursue a master’s in public health and specializing in global health. I later won a Fulbright scholarship and traveled to Nicaragua to study access to surgical care.
After completing my training in surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, I practiced as a traveling surgeon, working with the Indian Health Services in rural communities in Oklahoma, Montana, and Appalachia. As a traveling surgeon, I witnessed some of the challenges associated with practicing medicine in rural settings. This, and other experiences, help to inform the work I do daily at NIMHD. For example, my previous global health experiences helped to inform my participation in the Latin America: Synergizing Health Research Across the Hemisphere workshop, which focused on discussing research opportunities to reduce health and health care disparities related to non-communicable diseases. It also helped with my role as a project scientist in the Data Science Center for the Study of Surgery, Injury, and Equity (D-SINE) Africa. Additionally, my experiences in rural settings have helped to inform my work with the NIMHD Rural Health concept.
I worked full time as a general surgeon at Holy Cross Hospital from 2018–2020. A large segment of the populations I worked with was Hispanic/Latino and many were uninsured. I witnessed the differences in access between those who had insurance and those who did not. Those without insurance came primarily to the emergency department and had complicated cases. I was truly grateful to be able to serve my community during this time.
When I was offered the role of a program official at NIMHD, I felt it would be an opportunity to help my community on a more significant level. It would provide an opportunity to contribute to policy and research on health issues related to my community, while I can still positively affect people’s lives as a physician and surgeon.
My clinical practice drives my public health work and vice versa. I currently work at the Holy Cross Health Center and the patients appreciate having a Hispanic physician who speaks their language. My experiences working with populations who are medically underserved fuels the passion for my health disparities work at NIMHD.
My work with populations experiencing health disparities has been influential in helping to develop various initiatives at NIH. For example, the Health care Worker Well-Being initiative was inspired by my work as a traveling surgeon in rural communities and seeing how nursing shortages affected patient care in these settings. I presented a concept on spirituality and religiosity that was, in part, fueled by identifying a health gap — which is that patients need to receive whole person health care for holistic well-being. Oftentimes, patients coming to me have complex psychosocial factors impacting their physical health and it is important to take these into consideration when providing care to them.
Although it has been a long journey since first crossing the Rio Grande to arrive in the United States, my experiences have brought me back full circle to pursue my passions while serving my community and the nation.