About FIGS V.I.P.s (Very Important Professionals)
From launching international non-profit organizations to bringing new life into the world, medical professionals are making a difference in the lives of their patients across the globe. Every month, FIGS celebrates the people behind these feats and shares their stories with our community.
Name: Jessica Oliveira, MSPA, PA-C
Profession: Saving Mothers Guatemala Program Director and Physician Assistant
Affiliation: Mount Sinai
Location: New York, NY
Why did you decide to get in the medical profession? I’ve always been fascinated with medicine. I wanted to be a pediatrician when I was a kid, and I was obsessed with Mother Teresa growing up. However I told my parents I never wanted to be a nun. I studied sports medicine during undergrad, but I was bored and wanted to be challenged. I thought I would do orthopedic surgery, but when I did my OB rotation, I just connected with it and found my niche. I actually went to Guatemala on my first medical trip abroad and did a lot of education with the patients. I realized how much I loved it and that I had a natural gift for working with people.
How did you start the Comadroma School of POWHER? I started working with Saving Mothers back in 2009 where I met Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, the Director of Global Health in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Mount Sinai. I participated in maternal care initiatives in Sierra Leon and Liberia at local non-profit hospitals. I met a local women there who said I wasn’t helping the poor by working in a private hospital. She made me realize that despite our efforts, we weren’t going to change anything long term. Dr. Shirazian and the rest of the team always had dreamed of creating a more sustainable program for the women. I started networking, meeting directors of local clinics and other medical professionals that worked with the community. Four years later, we developed the Maternal School of POWHER (Providing Outreach in Women’s Health Education and Resources) in Santiago Atitian, Guatemala.
What makes this program different? We are probably the only people training local doctors in maternal health in the area. We train local nurses, health educators, and local midwives, really anyone taking care of women or of any women of child bearing age.
I am an anthropologist at heart so I loved getting to understand the community. This particular community of Santiago Atitian is indigenous and a majority of them only speak a particular Mayan dialect. Typically, women birth at home with traditional birth attendants called Comadronas. Comadronas are the elders in the community that follow very traditional practices and are very well respected. They learn maternal care from their elders and pass down knowledge from generation to generation. To become a Comadrona, you have to be blessed by God for this calling. The Mayans believe everyone is born into this world with a destiny. You have to fulfill your destiny or you will get struck with illness. So those who get ill very often go to a healer to see what destiny they are not fulfilling that causes the illness. The average age of the Comadronas is over 50. The majority of them don’t speak Spanish and the highest level of education on average is 3rd grade. You’d be surprised how much they learn from observing. It is impressive.
How is the program run? We’ve now been working with women in this community for four years. I go down three times a year for months at a time and do training with them. I created the curriculum and taught all the classes. The Saving Mothers team provided all the supplies we needed. We identified younger women in the community who had the desire to be midwives, health educators or auxiliary nurses and paired them with the older Comadronas. Our first class was 21 students that just graduated in May. We have 18 active students that are still continuing their education. Every three months, we follow up their education. We send doctors and residents to perform on the ground work that continues their clinicals. After the year-long clinicals, we evaluate them to determine if they are ready. The Ministry of Health will then finally recognize them to go out in the community with the Comadronas. The Minister of Health attended our first graduation, which really validated the program. We have been approached about launching this program in other areas in Guatemala, so we’re collecting data to create a full kit to be able to share this with other institutions.
What do you love most about working with the school of POWHER? I’ve learned so much about myself from this community. I feel like they’ve taught me a lot more than I given them. I have a strong personality. My mother once told me that I am a feminist, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. Nowadays, when I go to Guatemala, I feel like a different person. The women there taught me there are many different sides to being a woman. They make me proud to be a woman who can fill certain roles that in US we fight against being defined by. They make being a female, a mother, a wife, a sister beautiful. They are very humble people and that’s why I love this work.
If you weren't in the medical field, what would you be doing? I would have gotten my Masters in public health and created similar initiatives and programs in resource-poor areas. I am actually moving away from practicing medicine in the US so I can do more of this kind of work. So hopefully we continue growing, so it’s something I can do.
When you aren't creating world changing programs, what do you like to do? I love food from everywhere in the world, so I enjoy what NYC has to offer. I like to go out with friends and enjoy good company, food, and wine. I also travel a lot on my own. Travel is the only way for me to stay sane, living in this crazy city. Travelling has made me realize how fortunate we are here in the US. All my experiences make me feel like I am one of the richest people in this world. It has been a great blessing.
For more information on Comadroma School of POWHER, Saving Mothers, and more, visit:
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