Inclusiveness makes an organization stronger. Our staff members are not only outstanding professionals, but they also are as diverse as the city we live in and the patient population we serve. This helps them understand our patients and be empathetic to their needs. Our patients also see themselves reflected on the staff and see possibilities.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Angela Diaz, director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center (MSAHC) in New York City. She has led MSAHC for almost 30 years, overseeing its growth into the largest center of its kind in the United States. In directing a pioneering program that delivers high-quality care to more than 11,000 of New York City’s most vulnerable young people, Dr. Diaz has become widely recognized as one of the nation’s most influential advocates for adolescent health.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a young child in the Dominican Republic, my family was very poor and had no access to health care. I slipped and fell while carrying a jar of oil, lacerating my abdomen, and had to have emergency surgery when I was only four years old. During that hospital stay I knew I wanted to become a doctor.
As an adolescent I moved back and forth between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, settling with my mother, grandmother and stepfather in West Harlem when I was almost 15. Although I didn’t speak much English at first, I enjoyed school and attended Brandeis High School, while working three part-time jobs to help my family. I still dreamed of being a doctor, and my school enrolled me in a program for inner-city youth who were interested in careers in health care. As part of this program they introduced me to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. During my final year of high school I struggled with a deep depression and stopped going to school. One day I went to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for treatment, which changed my life. The staff never gave up on me. Without their help, I might never have gone back to school. It also helped that my school never stopped reaching out to me.
I graduated from high school and went to City College in New York, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night, depending on what job I had. My senior year I applied and was accepted to Columbia Medical School, and my dream of becoming a doctor came true. I completed my residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in adolescent medicine at Mount Sinai. Upon completing my fellowship I was offered a staff position at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. I’ve been the Director since 1989. I’ve also earned a master’s in public health from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Columbia University.
I love working with young people and running a center where we provide truly comprehensive care at no charge. It makes me happy that some kids’ lives are transformed like mine was by the Center. I have come full circle!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your role at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center?
In 2001, our parent organization — Mount Sinai Medical Center — faced serious financial challenges. The Center that I run had to ensure that we had a solid financial foundation in order to keep going. This was a challenge as we see poor and largely uninsured young people for free. I began to put together an Advisory Board of supporters — with help from Jean Crystal, a Mount Sinai Trustee, and a friend, Charles Roussel, who was then a partner at Accenture. We imagined it would be hard to fundraise for a population of inner city teens that are not a population that always attracts sympathy. But with the help of the advisory board and a small number of additional volunteers we were able to establish a very successful fundraising strategy, including our annual Breakfast of Legends fundraiser. As a result our center was able to grow and serve many more needy youth and add exciting new services for free.
For some years now, at our breakfast annual event these young people tell their stories of how we have transformed their lives. Every year these stories bring me — and our five hundred attendees — to tears. They inspire me. There are too many to single any one story out, but you can see these stories on videos as the young people speak through our YouTube channel.
What do you think makes your Center stand out? Can you share a story?
We provide everything under one roof, “from mental to dental,” I like to say. No young person is ever turned away or billed. Not one penny changes hands. We treat all who come to us with compassion, respect and confidentiality. Our center is a haven for all young people. In addition to primary care, we offer sexual and reproductive health, mental health services, and dental and optical care. We also have specialized services for LGBQ and transgender young people, teen parents, and HIV positive youth. Our model is nationally recognized for breaking down economic and social barriers to health and wellness care for vulnerable young people. We also train psychologists, social workers, health educators and the next generation of adolescent specialists as part of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and we conduct pioneering clinical research.
It is so inspiring to see former patients who are making their way in the world. One of them came to us as a depressed adolescent from the Bronx, struggling with his sexuality. He was in counseling and got treatment at the Center for a number of years, and became the first in his family to go to college. He’s currently in a Ph.D. program at Harvard and is comfortable with himself and his life. Not everyone’s story is that dramatic. I am just as proud of all our young people, whatever they do, and their resilience in difficult circumstances. I see myself in them.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are working to reach even more young people and also to add new services such as pre-natal care. We work very hard on pregnancy prevention but for young women who do end up pregnant we want to give them and their babies a health start. We are always developing new services for young people. We have successfully developed a wonderful service for transgender teens, have helped about 500 to transition and will serve about 200 this year. In addition we are working to advocate for adolescent health, to get the word out about what young people need. We have demonstrated that if you build high quality, integrated, adolescent friendly services you can improve their health outcomes and help them lead healthy and productive lives. Young people need to be healthy to make it in this world and we have demonstrated that by partnering with them they can become great consumers of health care and responsible people.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Communication, commitment and trust are key to helping teams perform. Your team needs to understand what the goals are and their role in helping to reach those goals. We as leaders must model the behavior we want to see — clear communication, commitment to the cause, and trust in the team members. And as a leader, I would encourage female team members to speak up and be heard.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As a team becomes larger it’s essential to delegate responsibilities and to empower the team to make decisions. Communication is even more important with a large team. Your role is to inspire the team and direct their course, while respecting and using their knowledge and experience. It is also essential to hire people who are, not only skilled but, passionate about the work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I came to live in New York I didn’t know much English. I was placed in a class for immigrant children who spoke several different languages. The other kids bullied us and sometimes beat us up because we didn’t “fit in.” Our teacher was very young and inexperienced, but she was idealistic, charismatic and compassionate, and she believed in each of us. She encouraged me, and all of our group, to learn English and succeed at my studies. Her inspiration and confidence in me led me to become successful in academics and laid the groundwork for my future. I will always be grateful to her.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 — Everyone needs a support system. From that teacher who believed in me to Dr. Kurt Hirschhorn, who mentored me during my pediatrics residency, to my present boss Dean Dennis Charney whom I adore. But above all my mother and other family members and the many friends I have. Their support helped me become a leader and grow the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center to the largest center of its kind in the U.S. I couldn’t have done it without them.
2 — Assemble a strong team that believes in the dream. As the Center has grown, I’ve ensured that we hire staff who care passionately about the health and wellbeing of young people. Everyone plays a role in helping our patients feel safe, welcome, and in charge of their health. It is also important to hire staff who are strong in areas that you may not be.
3 — Inclusiveness makes an organization stronger. Our staff members are not only outstanding professionals, but they also are as diverse as the city we live in and the patient population we serve. This helps them understand our patients and be empathetic to their needs. Our patients also see themselves reflected on the staff and see possibilities.
4 — Have a vision for the future, and work toward it. We’ve gotten funding to help us develop strategic plans, so we know what steps to take to grow and expand our influence in adolescent health. We build toward our future one step at a time.
5 — Let your passion fuel your success. When I first worked with adolescents as a pediatric resident, I fell in love with them. They’re so genuine and open, and have so much energy and potential. So many of them are living with poverty, violence and abuse. My own early life informs my belief that every young person has a right to quality health care, no matter what. Because it is very hard when you do not have it, as I did not have it growing up!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
When I was a child I dreamed of becoming a doctor and helping others the way I’d been helped. That dream only became stronger as I grew up and realized I could make a brighter future for young people who were suffering as I had once suffered, from poverty, lack of health care, and depression.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Oh where do I begin!!! There are so many inspirational and courageous figures. All these women leaders — Oprah, Michele Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Tarana Burke, how many can I name? And the men too — Trevor Noah (what an inspirational and transformative story he has), Cory Booker, Tyler Perry. And, of course, George and Amal Clooney.
So of course you asked me for one name and I gave nine. But a key lesson I have learned as a leader is to dream big and to push the envelope.
Originally published at medium.com