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Patient Stories

Making History: Hispanic Heritage

Challenging, Changing and Writing History at Northwestern Medicine

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Juan Carlos Caicedo, MD

Transplant Surgery

Northwestern Memorial Hospital

Dr. Caicedo is the director of the Hispanic Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the first known program of its kind in the U.S. A team of more than 50, including bilingual physicians, social workers, a financial coordinator, a clinical research coordinator and other support staff, offers patients individualized, culturally sensitive care.

What do you love about your job?

I love that my job is very gratifying and fulfilling. I’m a Hispanic guy who came to this country without being able to speak English well. I finished three fellowships and went on to develop the first Hispanic transplant program in the nation.

I love that I can see how my team and I are making a difference in improving trust and care measures in the Latino community. We’ve increased the number of Hispanic additions to the kidney transplant waiting list by 91%. We’ve increased the living kidney donations in Hispanic people by 74%. We’ve decreased the disparity in transplants between Hispanic people and white people by 70%. Our outcomes are fantastic not only for kidney transplantation, but also for liver transplantation; for example, the survival rate is 94% for deceased donor liver transplantation and 100% for living donor liver transplantation. That makes me feel good.

I love to work to understand the needs of the community. I love to work alongside 50 dedicated people in the Hispanic Transplant Program serving the Hispanic community. This makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.

I love that our efforts with the Hispanic Transplant Program have inspired my colleagues to start the Northwestern Medicine African American Transplant Access Program and the Neurosurgery team at Northwestern Medicine to start a program focusing on brain tumor treatment for the Hispanic population. I love to teach other institutions in the country how to create culturally competent programs.

I love that I see a lot of faces of people who are very grateful for our team. I love the challenge every day to help people and make impossible things possible. It’s always exciting to solve problems and give people solutions and a new life.

What obstacle(s) did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

Everybody who has immigrated to the U.S. from other countries must overcome language and cultural barriers.

When I immigrated from Colombia, I was a fellow with very poor English. My attendings were very patient when I struggled. Northwestern Medicine literally opened the door for me by providing me with the best training in transplant surgery in the world. Other places in the country told me that I would have to wait 20 years for them to take me as transplant surgical fellow. Some offered me to a be a physician’s assistant (PA) for one year before they will consider me as a transplant fellow, even though I was already a surgeon doing kidney transplants in my home country of Colombia. I faced a lot of discrimination, but Northwestern Medicine gave me the opportunity to prove that I was a great surgeon.

I was a tourist visiting Chicago with my camera bag and all my dreams. My friends took a trolley to Navy Pier, and I said, “Go have fun, I’m going to go look for my future.”

I stopped in Northwestern Memorial Hospital and asked to speak to Frank P. Stuart, MD, who was the chief of Transplant Surgery at the time. The administrator at the time helped print my CV off a floppy disc. I waited, and then Dr. Stuart and one of his attendings, Michael M. I. Abecassis, MD, MBA, who was the second in command at the time, talked to me and toured me around for one and a half hours. There was another fellow there from Chile who spoke Spanish and showed me the hospital.

Now, 20 years later, I’m the leader of the first Hispanic Transplant Program in the nation, the surgical director of the Liver Transplant Program, and director of the Living Donor Liver Transplant Program as well as hepatobiliary surgery. Northwestern Medicine opened the door for me.

I’m inspired by this quote from St. Francis of Assisi:

Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

How are you making history?

Because I created a first-of-its-kind Hispanic Transplant Program, I have been appointed inaugural chair of the Diversity Issues Committee of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons.

I’m a board member for Gift of Hope because of my work with the Hispanic population and my versatility as a pediatric and adult surgeon.

I have been part of the Minority Affairs Committee for the United Network for Organ Sharing and I am co-chair of the Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Access (to Life) (IDEAL) task force in the American Society of Transplantation.

I go around the country teaching Grand Rounds, and working with other centers to teach them about culturally competent care and ways they can change their approach to help with racial disparities in care.

Now, as part of our efforts, I have an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to implement culturally sensitive care to living donations for Hispanic people. Only 2% of transplant surgeons have received this type of grant, and it’s a big deal.

I was also featured in Crain’s Chicago Business’ 40 Under 40.

What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?

I’m a very proud Colombian. I’m also a proud American citizen. I came to this country because of opportunities and diversity. Immigration from different places is what has made the U.S. what it is. We have to return to embracing diversity. We have to let diversity make us strong again.

What are you most proud of?

When I started my academic career, I was in a little rural school in the middle of Colombia. Now, I look out the window of my office and see the city of Chicago. I’m at Northwestern Medicine, with one of the top medical schools in the nation and in the world. I’m very proud of that big jump.

I am one of many examples of what the U.S. is all about. If you work hard, you can find opportunities and do good things. I am proud to be the story of all of us. Proud of the passion. Proud to be in the U.S.


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Marie Fuentes-Harris, MSW, LCSW

Social Work

Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital Cancer Center

Fuentes-Harris has been the Outpatient Oncology and Palliative Care social worker at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital Cancer Center for two years, but has been a social worker for more than 23. She was recognized by her peers as a Northwestern Medicine Hero for Better for her compassionate care in helping families connect with their loved ones in the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you love about your job?

Being able to advocate for our patients and their families so they receive the support and resources they need.

What obstacle(s) did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

I was the first person in my family to go to college. As a result, I had to figure out on my own which field to study and the process of applying to colleges.

How are you making a difference?

I am making a difference by addressing barriers that our Spanish-speaking patients might encounter when receiving services at Lake Forest Hospital Cancer Center, for example, making sure our patient materials are translated to Spanish.

What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?

It means everything. I am so proud to be the daughter of a Mexican mother and of the beautiful Latino culture that I am a part of.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my ability to speak Spanish. As a result, I am able to provide support to our Spanish-speaking patients and their families in their first language.

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Andy Ponce Vasquez, RN

Cardiac Transplant Intensive Care

Northwestern Memorial Hospital

Ponce Vasquez is a clinical nurse in the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

He is making history by mentoring Spanish-speaking nurses from other countries looking to pursue their nursing training and become credentialed in the U.S.

What do you love about your job?

The opportunity to help my patients feel a little bit better during the difficult moment of being sick at the hospital. Twelve-hour shifts can be exhausting, but the moment that your patient thanks you for being there when they need you is priceless. It feels good to help others. Facundo Cabral once said, “If the bad guys only knew what great business it is to be good, they would all be good guys, even if it was just for money.”

What obstacle(s) did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

The biggest obstacle has been myself and my thoughts about the present and future. When I arrived a few years ago to this country from Ecuador, the idea of starting over was overwhelming and scary. On several occasions, I doubted myself and my ability to learn. I thought about whether I was supposed to be here in the U.S., or should I just go back to Ecuador. This was a question that wandered in my mind constantly. I had to make new friends, learn new technology and learn a new language in three years to practice as an Internationally Educated Nurse (IEN) in the best hospital. This is just a taste of my journey.

How are you making a difference?

As a nurse in my practice, I try to learn every day and help my team, my patients and my unit in any way that I can. As an IEN, I help more IENs who are pursuing the path of becoming a nurse in the U.S. by mentoring them through the Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium (CBNC).

What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?

It is the ability to see the world from a different perspective with different ideas to overcome any obstacle. Being a Hispanic nurse and bilingual helps me connect even more with patients who need our skills to communicate and understand their plan of care at the hospital and outside of it.

What are you most proud of?

I decided to stay here in this country and pursue my career as an IEN. However, I have to say this, I couldn't do it without my wife's help. She was and has been my mainstay.

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Luis A. Manrique, MD

Infectious Disease

Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital

Dr. Manrique is making history by being an infectious disease expert during a global pandemic. During the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Manrique went from seeing 30 to 40 patients on average to nearly 100 every day.

What do you love about your job?

At the start of the pandemic, we didn’t have proven treatments for COVID-19, so we were using the medications that were available at the time to treat patients the best we could. As we learn more about this new disease, we could apply evidence-based therapies to help our patients. It is this problem-solving process that I love about being an infectious disease physician.

I also love that infectious disease doctors are not restricted to one organ system and that most of the time infections can be treated or eradicated, with some exceptions such as HIV, chronic hepatitis etc.

Because my specialty is not limited to one organ system or part of the body, I need to be aware of other medical conditions that can mimic infections. That makes my job more challenging and very interesting.

What obstacle(s) did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

When I was 13 years old, I told my friend I wanted to be a doctor, and ever since then I worked towards that goal. I faced challenges being a foreign medical school graduate. Medical school and college are different where I’m from: Lima, Peru.

When I graduated high school, I took a very competitive placement exam to enter the best medical school in my country. I didn’t make it my first time. This was my first obstacle. I worked hard, applied again six months later and was admitted.

Then, deciding to come to the U.S. was another obstacle that I overcame by learning English and passing the U.S. medical licensing examinations. I did my residency at the old Cook County Hospital, which was very similar to hospitals in Peru in that it was a very old building, but the technology was there for me to get trained in the way I wanted. In Peru, we don’t have the technology to truly get to the bottom of a diagnosis. In the U.S., I was able to finally get to the bottom of things by using technology. After my residency, since I was a foreign medical graduate, I had to work in an underserved area in the U.S. I decided to stay in Chicago and worked as a primary care provider in the Pilsen neighborhood before going back for a fellowship in infectious disease.

Now, I’ve been at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital for 10 years, and I feel very lucky that I’ve overcome these challenges so that I can focus on taking care of patients, especially those who lack means.

How are you making a difference?

Being a physician at Central DuPage Hospital allows me to serve the Latinx community because of the hospital’s proximity to the town of West Chicago, which is predominantly Hispanic. I am making a difference by helping the Hispanic community and advocating for them as a bilingual physician. I think they feel more comfortable talking with me because we connect on this level.

What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?

My Hispanic heritage helps me relate to people with similar backgrounds. I’m proud of my Peruvian heritage and recognize my history. Peru was once the center of the Incan civilization. I’m proud to be a mixture of native Andean, Spanish and other ethnicities.

What are you most proud of?

That I was able to follow my dream and become a physician in the U.S., coming from South America. Now, I am the lead infectious disease physician at Central DuPage Hospital and am also in charge of the Antibiotic Stewardship and Infection Prevention programs. I am proud of being able to serve my patients in many different ways, not only at the bedside.

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Amanda Armijo, BSN, RN

Medical Surgical and Pediatrics

Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital

As a charge nurse on the Medical Surgical and Pediatrics Unit at Huntley Hospital, Armijo consistently puts patients first and is a phenomenal leader for the nurses on her team. She has been the chair of the Shared Governance Council at the hospital for the last two years, leading unit initiatives.

What do you love about your job?

Being a part of a great team. Working together to help others in need and knowing I can count on my team in emergent situations. I enjoy caring for my patients and most importantly knowing that I have made a difference in someone's life by caring for them or their loved one.

What obstacle(s) did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

Nursing school was very challenging for me. I struggled with test-taking anxiety and reading comprehension. I was able to overcome these challenges and was able to successfully become a registered nurse.

How are you making a difference?

I feel like I have made a difference at Huntley Hospital by providing the best care for my patients, being able to connect with patients and giving them a sense of comfort while in the hospital. I feel like I can make a difference with my participation in the Shared Governance and hospital-wide councils because I am able to collaborate with colleagues on quality improvement and patient satisfaction.

I enjoy mentoring new nurses and sharing my knowledge and experience. As a charge nurse/leader on the unit, many of my peers confide in me. I am always there for my team by helping them with skills, critical thinking, education, advocacy and advice.

What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?

When I think of my Mexican American heritage, the first thing that comes to mind is family and how important family is to me, being part of a beautiful culture that is centered around love, respect, honor and hope. Being aware of what my grandparents had to overcome to provide their children a better life, knowing that my parents provided me with endless opportunity for my future — for that, I am beyond grateful.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of my growth in nursing and being able to explore many different avenues in nursing. I am currently working on my growth in leadership, and I appreciate those who believe in me and see my potential as I continue to gain the confidence in becoming a strong leader. I am very proud of myself for never giving up and working hard to get where I am today.