Dr. Patricia Valverde, PhD, MPH, the director of the Patient Navigator Training Collaborative (PNTC), was recognized by the National Association of Latino Healthcare Executives (NALHE) in a recent newsletter celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. The story is part of a series of NALHE stories from members and leaders that speak of the resilience, work ethic, and the beauty of the community and its heritage that lifts every corner of this country. See below for Dr. Valverde’s journey in her own words. To read the full newsletter, click here.
I was supposed to be a lawyer. That was the plan. Probably because I like to argue and tend to feel very passionate about justice. But life didn’t turn out that way. As I review my 30 year career, I have identified my own personal axioms:
1) be open to new possibilities because one small decision can change the path forward positively;
2) family support is essential and a lifeline when facing challenges;
3) have a team of supporters and mentors to help light the way; and
4) believe in yourself: your abilities and intelligence.
As I mentioned, I was ‘supposed’ to go to law school. It all changed when I lived and studied Spanish in Mexico. As Patricia Alvarez, a Mexican American and Güera yet unable to speak Spanish, I feared I would miss out on more fully understanding and embracing my heritage. So, after college off I go to Mexico City. I was privileged to take time between college and career and had in mind to stay longer and volunteer at a feminist organization. Instead, I stopped in Creel Chihuahua and saw a small mission clinic that served the Tarahumara indigenous people that live in the Copper Canyon. I was intrigued and asked if I could work there as a volunteer. For the next year and a half, I nursed children with malnutrition or tuberculosis back to health with my minimal skills from a bachelor’s degree in political science. I saw the immediate impact of healthcare on individuals and their families. I also was impressed by the remarkable strength and commitment of community members as they served as liaisons between the Mexican healthcare providers and the Tarahumara community.
It is always amazing how those seemingly small decisions change the trajectory of one’s life. First it was the Tarahumara clinic experience, and then it was a cancer patient navigation clinical trial 12 years later.
Returning from Mexico, I knew I wanted to work in healthcare but didn’t know how. I worked as a bilingual community health worker until realizing that a graduate degree in public health was my avenue to contribute to health improvements. In addition, I had promised my father months before he died that I would continue my education.
I find that much of my professional journey has been a series of reviewing what the people ‘above me’ accomplish and thinking, “I can do that” and benefitting from encouragement of peers. This occurred when deciding to pursue a master’s degree in public health and later a doctoral degree in health services research. I have tried to espouse an attitude where I believe that with additional skills, knowledge, tools and support, I have the ability to keep moving forward professionally.
Working in public health aligns with my commitment to social justice, a value that is both personal and professional. I found my focus in public health when I managed the clinical trial on cancer patient navigation fifteen years ago. I ran the study at a local public hospital which was one of 10 sites around the country. I interacted with the researchers regularly and those relationships have continued to today. That one patient navigator (PN) program, which didn’t even cover all of my salary (I juggled many other projects at the same time), has benefitted me for the remainder of my career- I now direct a PN training program, and I am co-chair of a national PN task group. I have loved the work I do in Patient Navigation- it is focused on achieving health equity, supporting patient centered care, and creating bridges between communities and the healthcare system. I feel incredibly fortunate that I am able to spend much of my time training, supporting and promoting the involvement of community members in public health and healthcare.
When I started managing the PN clinical trial, I also decided to go back to school and obtain a doctorate. It took me a long time to complete my doctorate while working with two young kids. I wouldn’t have finished without the daily help and encouragement of my husband and children. They have been my main cheerleaders. They remind me of my capabilities and the importance of public health work. My family has been involved since the early days including attending health fairs with me, going to back to school nights for outreach presentations, attending science conferences, community events, and helping prepare research materials at home. Community service and biculturalism has been a family value as we worked to develop strong ties to family and friends in both the US and Mexico by living in Mexico and frequent visits.
My career has allowed me to explore different health topics using health navigation and community health workers to improve health outcomes. I have been honored to teach on graduate level topics that are of professional and personal interest. Currently I co-teach Latino Health, social and behavioral factors in health and I lead trainings on COVID 19 resource coordination. I contribute to research studies on improving access to substance use treatment, reducing Latinx youth vaping, promoting lung cancer screening, and increasing healthcare access for rural Native Americans veterans and more recently, combating human trafficking. I am also a member of a statewide tobacco control committee that sets policies and distributes tobacco tax revenue and have been a Minority Health Advisory Commissioner in Colorado.
Lastly, I have received incredible backing from the Latino Research and Policy Center (LRPC), which provides help and mentorship for students, community leaders and faculty, all in pursuit of healthy and strong Latino communities. When I feel isolated in academia, as one of few Latinx faculty on campus, the LRPC has provided that home for shared interest, values and mission. Through the LRPC, I am now able to mentor the next generation of passionate Latinx public health professionals. Sometimes I wonder if I should have become a lawyer; but when my teenage daughter called me ‘a social justice warrior’, I knew I was on the right path.