Maria Ramos found out the hard way -- what you don't know really can hurt you.
"I had been feeling very tired, but my family kept telling me not to worry, that it would get better. Then I found out I had leukemia."
At age 17, Ramos fainted in her City College classroom and woke up in HHC's Metropolitan Hospital on the upper east side of Manhattan. Doctors gave her a battery of tests to find out the real cause of her ill health. The diagnosis of leukemia led to a year of treatment, a complete cure, and a new outlook for the young woman.
"It was the first time I had really excellent healthcare," said Ramos. "I went to my family, who had been so unwilling to speak about health and said, 'You need to find out the truth and take care of yourself.'"
That early experience clearly had a lasting impression and was the beginning of Ramos' commitment to increasing health literacy. Her life-long passion and achievements were recognized this month with a $125,000 award by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the innovative health outreach program that served more than 4,000 New York City taxi drivers.
Ramos, Director of Lincoln Hospital's Community Health Education and Outreach program, sees clearly how her background has informed her work in health education. She came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was 11, and her experience has helped her understand the fear and confusion that immigrants may have around hospitals. That fear can lead them to put off preventive health screenings and ignore warning signs of disease.
"There are so many things people need to know to stay healthy. The health risks that are in their family, for example, and dietary changes they may need to make. Many taxi drivers suffer from poor circulation and other medical conditions resulting from their sedentary work and poor eating habits," said Ramos. "They have language and communication barriers, lack insurance and fear their immigration status will keep them from getting medical care. And they're too busy driving their taxis for long hours to make ends meet."
The taxi drivers program is just one example of the services Ramos and the three health educators on her team provide. Lincoln partners with more than 350 community groups that help them reach more than 1,000 people each month. They even taught staff at the Social Security Administration how to work effectively with clients living with HIV, asthma or diabetes. Faith-based groups often ask them to give education sessions or health screenings for people before or after religious services. Ramos is an active member of her own church and she thrives in this setting.
"I open by reading them a short verse from scripture that encourages them to stay healthy," she said. "People have to trust you before they trust the information you provide," she adds. "That can take some time. Groups don't want you once only; they want you to keep coming back."
Ramos' family and friends continue to inspire her in her work, both on and off the job. With her friends she has formed a group of women who enjoy getting together regularly to play dominoes … and sometimes to agitate for better community services. She also has a soft spot for animals, in addition to her three beloved shiatsus dogs. Her home is known as a safe haven for cats and dogs in the neighborhood, and she works with animal shelters to find homes to adopt the pets.