Providence's Latino doctors

Providence, RI – Most conversations about health care in the Latino community focus on low income immigrants struggling to get the medical attention or translation services they need. But what about the Latinos on the other side of the stethoscope?

In our ongoing series "Providence, Mi Ciudad," WRNI's health care reporter Megan Hall has this profile of a local pediatrician from Venezuela.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Dr. Gisela Porras stands in a small office with pink walls, examining her nine year old patient.

Dr. Porras alternates effortlessly between languages, English for her patient and Spanish for his mother, all the while typing notes in English on her computer.

Porras specializes in treating children with developmental disabilities, so she does a lot of talking with their parents. If Porras didn't speak Spanish, the mother in the exam room would have to use a translator. "It's better this way," the mom says. "I can speak directly. A translator isn't the same."

Although Porras and her Latino patients share a language, they have little else in common. Porras was born in Venezuela, but she's lived in Italy, Great Britain, and several parts of the United States. Some of her Spanish speaking patients came here illegally. Porras came here with a job.

"You know, I haven't had the opportunity to meet a lot of Latinos. I know there's some physicians in Hasbro that are," she says. "But I think each one is very involved in their life and have integrated well in how would you say, American community?"

Porras says she's the same way- she identifies more with the community of doctors and professionals than with any sort of Latino community.

It's difficult to say how many Latino doctors work in Providence. There's no list of Hispanic doctors at either the Health Department or the Rhode Island Medical Society.

A search of Providence physicians that studied in Spanish speaking countries turns up about 36 names, but the list is outdated. Some have moved away, mostly to Florida. Porras guesses that Hispanic doctors move to Florida to be closer to family or their home countries.

Porras says she wishes she were more involved in the Latino community, not to make new contacts, but to help. She says she's seen Spanish speaking patients go a year without treatment because they didn't know who to call or how to reach the right doctor.

"They have to go through the front desk and sometimes you know, you don't even get someone," she says. "They have to leave a message, so who knows who's going to get that message. And who's going to call back, maybe there's a disconnected number. I mean, there's so many issues that are preventing that direct communication."

It's been a long time since Porras has struggled to communicate in English, but she remembers how it felt. She was seven years old and couldn't understand what her teachers were saying. Graduate school in America brought a new challenge- knowing academic terms in her second language.

Porras holds that memory in her mind when she meets with her Spanish speaking patients, hoping to show that despite their many differences, she too knows what it's like to be an immigrant.

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