February 21, 2013 | Health and Well-Being
“Keep trying and never give up.” Dr. Angela Diaz Won’t Rest Till Every Kid Has a Healthy Childhood
To the 12,000 children and young adults who come to her clinic seeking free medical treatment each year, Dr. Angela Diaz is a local legend. Back when she was young teen recently arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic, Diaz turned for help to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Care Clinic; in 1989 she became its director, and under her leadership the facility has expanded tremendously. She took our questions from her office in Manhattan.
You arrived here as a teen from the Dominican Republic. What was that experience was like?
Everything was different from what I knew and I couldn't communicate. The first things kids taught me the night before my first day of school was "I don't speak English." It has been a wonderful experience, but people don't realize that to be uprooted is not easy.
What makes this clinic unique?
I think the main thing is that we are specifically designed to work with youth. So it is welcoming, it is respectful of that age group; it is not judgmental, and it is completely free. It's really a safe haven for young people.
You were once a patient at this very center.
I came to New York very poor. My family only used emergency care when we were really, really sick. Then when I was in high school I joined a program at Mt. Sinai for inner-city teenagers who wanted to go into health careers. As part of that program, we were able to be served by the Adolescent Health Center. The center was the first time I ever received primary care and it really saved me.
How has the center changed since you joined it?
I'm the third director after two giants: Dr. Joan Morgenthau and Dr. Jaffe. Things come up with the kids and we plan for it. We have created programs for kids that are overweight, added programs for victims of incest, those sexually exploited by commercial sex, victims of rape, LGBT youth programs, legal services, and dental services. The program just keeps evolving and growing and changing for the needs of the population we serve.
What are the biggest health issues facing adolescents today?
Poor nutrition and poor fitness. I also think that stress is a major issue. Young people who are gifted in school are trying to do better and get into the best academics situation. Others are stressed by poverty or being abused. These things also lead to less recognizable issues such as mental health problems and substance abuse, which can lead to suicide.
What is the biggest misconception about adolescents?
That they are troublemakers and difficult. Their behaviors may seem extreme but they're doing something that's developmentally appropriate. For example, eye rolling, changing clothes, glued to phones—we think that it's wrong, but developmentally that's where they are. Once we start to view adolescents as they are, and not take what they say personally, a lot of conflict can be alleviated.
When you were 16, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was four. When I was little I had a major accident that required surgery and so I spent a lot of time in the hospital in the Dominican Republic. Ever since that experience I knew I wanted to be a doctor.
Who or what inspires you?
My mother. She came from extreme poverty and had no schooling, but she always worked and was always able to provide for us. I also get inspiration from the young people we service. You should see some of the lives they live. Sometimes I wonder how these kids get out of bed much less go to school, work, or make it to the center.
What advice do you have for young women wanting to make a difference in the world?
To pursue their dreams, and do what you want to do. The path will be there. Also to get into a profession or job that brings you joy. And also to always try and help the next person. If we help each other then we have a much better chance of being successful and we will have a better society.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Just that I try and I never give up. That is it. I just want to keep trying and trying and never give up. If we don't give up, we will always make change.
Any last thoughts?
If any young person ages 10 to 22 needs any health services— don't worry about money, our doors are always open.