Mariana Sanchez on reaching patients through shared life experiences
I have had hardships in life and many challenges, but when anyone says a negative word to me, I always turn it into a positive. My outlook has played a big role in shaping my life and my work as a Community Health Worker for AIRnyc. I don’t dwell in the negative, I always lead with the positive and that is the approach I take with my patients too.
I came from Mexico at age 20 with a degree in biology, but I found everything different from what I expected. I arrived in Los Angeles thinking that money grew on trees, but that wasn’t true, and opportunities were hard to come by. I had to work in the field cutting tomatoes and peppers and it made me sad. I would cry and say, “My God, why did I come?” My brother said, “Here you have to work to survive.” It was a challenge, but I was determined to overcome these setbacks, so eventually I persevered and was able to stop working in the fields. I made my way to New York City and worked in the sewing industry, which was another big challenge to learn yet another new set of skills.
Once I got settled in New York I said, “I’m going to volunteer for a hospital.” I went to Metropolitan Hospital and I’ll always be grateful to them because they gave me an opportunity to contribute to my community. I worked on the days I could and on weekends and I started to feel like I was making my way here. Eventually, I became a Community Health Worker and have been working as part of the AIRnyc team since 2001.
I had it in my mind that all families in New York were rich and lived well, but that’s not true either. There is a lot of poverty. Many people suffer from chronic conditions and it’s especially hard for Spanish speakers. Sometimes I see not just physical asthma, but emotional asthma — if your family is dealing with socioeconomic problems, it’s hard to survive. You feel that the air is missing in your surroundings not just your lungs.
AIRnyc makes it possible to help people in their homes where changes make the most difference to quality of life. I identify with a lot of my patients and I’ve always told them, “You can trust me.” Sometimes patients are afraid to open the door. I have to say, “No, this program is here to help you, we will work together. I will help you get what you need to be well.” I understand my patients because I am too am an immigrant. I was not born here. I always lead with great respect so that I can gain their trust. I tell them, “Thank you very much for opening the door. How are you, and how is the family doing?” And from there, I begin to introduce myself and identify with them. I don’t come to give orders, we work together and understand each other.
The beauty of this organization is that we stay connected. Sometimes I see former patients on the street, on the bus, on the train, and the children recognize me. Recently a little girl said, “Oh, mom, it’s Mariana.” I feel good because that child always carries me in her mind. My former patients say to me, “Oh, we are always praying for you, because you are a very good person.” This makes our connection personal and meaningful. It feels special to stay connected and to see their progress.
AIRnyc’s work is important because we address health in so many ways that are different than what a doctor can do or see –we are actually in people’s homes. I see women who are victims of domestic violence and I want to help them. In many cases, they are silent because they need to care for their children and put the children’s needs first. This violence is part of the daily lives of too many people, and it affects the whole family. If a mother is a victim of violence, then that can make it difficult to take care of her children and do things like administer medications.
I relate to them as wives, as mothers and as women. I help them see that they have to care for themselves first, so that they can then take care of their children. Sometimes I have filled out the papers for my patients to see if they can qualify for assistance. Sometimes they call me and say, “Mariana, look, I received the letter, but I do not know what it says.” So, I tell them to take a picture and send it to me. They are often unable to read English or even in some cases are illiterate. I like helping them because I suffered through many challenges and I know what it’s like. This country is hard to navigate without help.
This work is important for me because I see myself reflected in the Spanish-speaking community, in a community that often doesn’t have anywhere to go for support. I guide them along. I’ve always told families that my work is important, but that they’re even more important. I tell them, “Look at my life as motivation that you too can do it. I’m like a car driving to where I choose to direct my life. The key is that I hold the steering wheel. I tell them, you are in charge too because the steering wheel of your life is in your hands.”