Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
To honor this month, we talked to former Ascension Saint Agnes ICU Director Dr. Anthony Martinez. Dr. Martinez founded the Adult Intensive Care Unit at Ascension Saint Agnes and continues to work a small number of shifts during his official retirement. We spoke with him about his Puerto Rican heritage and how it influenced his love of medicine and his career.
Q&A WITH DR. ANTHONY MARTINEZ
Where did your love for medicine come from?
My love for it started when I was young. I was born and raised in the South Bronx of New York City, which is a socially disadvantaged area. My mom worked at a health clinic there and I volunteered assisting radiology development. I knew the challenges of waiting four to five hours for a doctor.
Affordable colleges like City College, which I attended, allowed me to continue to be inspired and pursue a career in medicine. Being a New Yorker, seeing crowded urban settings and then being exposed to the academics and people from all over the world who were so bright — continued to nourish my love and passion for care and science.
How has being Hispanic contributed to your role as a doctor?
My cultural differences have made me a better doctor. It helps me be more sensitive to each patient’s beliefs. Sometimes people didn’t understand my language and culture when I was young and we were misinterpreted and sometimes mistreated because of that.
As a result, I became very sensitive to inclusiveness and became more open minded to understanding the ways of other people, the languages and the way they communicate — even with body languages. Hispanics are amazing– there’s a lot of body language involved in our communication. You never see a Hispanic not using their hands. It’s just our culture.
The other great thing about being a Hispanic doctor is the warmth we bring to our patients. Among Puerto Ricans, we have compassion for the underdog, and that’s really important because when people see me at the bedside I’m the guy who treats people with the same respect we give to our elders.
People always ask, “How do you get people to be so responsive to you?” And I say I think it’s just something I learned from my father and my mother. It’s the way we do things in our community–and I take that into my practice at the bedside.
What challenges have you faced as a Hispanic doctor?
Throughout my journey I never focused on it because my family approached life like we were American first. I think I ignored a lot of the barriers. Being from New York, I felt like I could be anything and I could do it all. That winning approach helped me a lot.
The biggest barrier for me was going from a public college to the Ivy League, which opened a lot of doors for me. No matter what your background is, if you’re smart and you know how to take care of people, you’ll remain in demand. It’s not just about being smart, you have to be a team player, work with people, and be compassionate.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you and how can we grow awareness of it?
In the past I didn’t think of it much, but now I think it’s very important. Hispanics are underrepresented in healthcare, and I think we have a lot to offer.
I think it’s important to grow awareness of Hispanic Heritage Month through interviews like this, and identify Hispanic role models throughout the healthcare industry. I think kids would be surprised how many of us get into this field. Representation is so important.
I don’t generally think of myself as a Hispanic doctor blazing a trail, but I realize when people see my name they may stop and think “Dr. Martinez, where is he from?” And then later they realize I’m Puerto Rican and I’m a pretty nice guy. It’s just important for people to know that we’re here, our community knows Ascension Saint Agnes is inclusive, and our contributions are noted as positive.
What is a Hispanic tradition you hope to carry on?
One tradition I want to continue is ‘the hug.’ COVID-19 has marred this a bit, but Puerto Ricans love to hug each other. There’s just something about that warm touch and the warmness of recognizing everyone individually. That’s the part of our culture that I never want to give up.