In September 1998, a young Colombian doctor dragged his suitcases into Oakland, preparing to pursue a fellowship in clinical pharmacology and a Master of Public Health (MPH) at Pitt Public Health. Fifteen years later, he has married, made Pittsburgh his home, and found a spiritual and intellectual calling to serve what he calls "an invisible community:" the Pittsburgh region’s fast-growing population of immigrant Latino children.
"For me, it was important to make a difference," explains Diego Chaves-Gnecco (MPH ’02), who is affectionately known as "Doctor Diego" to his patients and coworkers. The son and grandson of Colombian physicians, he had been drawn to public health through his medical studies at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in his native Bogotá.
"It was clear from the very beginning that the biggest accomplishments in keeping patients healthy were from the public health perspective—hand washing, preventive medicine, and immunizations."
While completing his MPH, Chaves-Gnecco also pursued a fellowship at Pitt in clinical pharmacology. A six-year stint as a pediatric resident and fellow in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC followed. Looking back, Chaves-Gnecco credits his experience in an interdisciplinary field course in rural communities as a pivotal moment.
"Over a summer, we worked with students from a number of universities on a rural health care study. There were so many challenges: All of us had different backgrounds coming into a rural community to do poison prevention in a day care center in Cumberland, Maryland. The lesson of the collaboration was, things can happen! That was the root of what we now do at the clinic."
Today the 43-year-old physician directs Salud Para Niños (Health for the Children). Operated by Children’s Hospital, it serves children at two locations. A clinic in the South Side provides an option for uninsured Latino children, and a clinic in Oakland is open to children with any type of health insurance.
"When we founded the clinic in 2002, there were no clinics for Latino children in Pittsburgh," he explains. "The problem then and still now is that we are, in many cases, an invisible community. Yet there are 30,000 Latinos living in southwestern Pennsylvania."
While U.S. Census numbers indicate the group is only two percent of the regional population, the doctor points out its unique demographics.
"One-third of Latinos here are under 18. So it’s a young population, and quite diverse. Our families come from many different countries in Latin America." While many Latino family incomes are below the national median, Chaves-Gnecco says immigrants face larger obstacles. "Transportation, language, and culture are barriers. You need credentials; you need to become fluent in English to achieve full potential."
In addition to thrice-weekly clinics, Salud Para Niños offers effective public health programs like its car seat initiative, which inspects the devices at community events and provides free replacements for defective models. It also connects families to state and federal health insurance programs when their children qualify for them.
But beyond medical care, many families also need an introduction to social services and school enrollment. In 2007, Chaves-Gnecco worked with others to establish the Latino Family Center.
He found an ally in Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. "Dr. Diego is a dynamo, an indefatigable, passionate champion for Latino families in our community," says Cherna. "A number of years ago, as a new member of our Child Welfare Advisory Board, he sensitized the Department of Human Services to our region’s growing Latino population. Wisely and persistently, he encouraged us to plan for their needs, translate our outreach and educational publications into Spanish, and create a culturally welcoming network of care. And while we acknowledge we still have much to do, we are much further along than we would have been without his vision and perseverance."
Chaves-Gnecco has also encouraged a strong partnership between Pitt Public Health and Salud Para Niños. In addition to the bilingual clinic staff of three physicians, two nurses, three registration staffers, and many volunteers, the clinic maintains a partnership with the Certificate Program in Global Health. In essence, says Chaves-Gnecco, the local clinic enriches the international experience of Pitt Public Health students who lend a hand at the clinic.
"It’s not just doing things abroad. We are so lucky to have such a diverse population here," he notes. As part of its public health commitment, Chaves-Gnecco says the clinic is beginning to address childhood obesity, working with School of Medicine and Pitt’s soccer team to invite Latino families to play the game. The initiative was created by two high school students, both children of faculty at Pitt’s School of Medicine.
Chaves-Gnecco understands the importance of public education in the assimilation of immigrant families. He’s enthusiastic about the Pittsburgh Promise, a college scholarship program for graduates of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. "Our concern was, kids go to school and know about [the program], but the information was presented in English. We helped to develop Spanish materials to make sure Latino families know about it."
Recently Salud Para Niños hosted an information session with Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane and Pittsburgh Promise Director Saleem Ghubril. "The audience was able to ask basic questions, like the difference between public schools and private. They needed information about special needs and English as a Second Language. Now they know members of the community; they’re working with the community. It’s very exciting."
The doctor is gratified to see his former patients thrive. "Many kids I saw at age six or eight are now young adults. They are the first generation of their families to go to universities—some helped by the Pittsburgh Promise. They grow up to become good men and women. They achieve their dreams and give back to the community and to the region."
While Chaves-Gnecco originally planned to return to Bogotá after his residency, he has become a Pittsburgher. He became a U.S. citizen and met his wife, Marysue Grassinger, who completed a doctorate in pharmacy from Pitt.
"I’ve been lucky, have been blessed, and I give thanks," he says cheerfully. "I can never be thankful enough to God, to Children’s, to the University, to the Graduate School of Public Health, and the community."