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March 24, 2023

Addressing the Social Determinants of Health: A Conversation with Maria Gomez

By Maddie Marran (H'25)

On March 14, our Conversations in Health: Global to Local class had the pleasure of hosting Maria Gomez (N’77), a retired nurse and community health leader, as a guest speaker. After listening to Gomez’s life stories and professional experiences, I got a sense of the powerful work she has done in our own Washington, DC, community. Gomez founded and served as CEO for Mary’s Center, which is now a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) serving over 65,000 people. In 2012, Gomez was awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Award for Health Equity and the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama for her work, and her model for Mary’s Center has become widely esteemed.

Mary’s Center specializes in helping immigrants access the health care they need, offering diverse structures of support involving education and social work. As an immigrant herself from Colombia, Gomez became interested in being an instigator for change early on in her life, after having firsthand experiences of health inequalities in her community. After obtaining her B.S. in nursing from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Gomez went on to practice nursing at a nearby hospital where she said she gained invaluable experiences and learned lifelong lessons. However, she felt restricted by nursing at a hospital, feeling that she could do more good by shifting to work in the emerging public health field. A major part of her inspiration to think bigger was her interest in addressing the social determinants of health. At the time, comprehensive care was not mainstream; however, she was committed to her vision of the Mary’s Center as a place offering holistic and compassionate care to immigrants in the DC area.

Through our conversation, I was reminded of the underlying factors that may affect health, which include the patient’s passions, their traumas, their life at home, and their life at work. Many times, these factors go overlooked, but we must remind ourselves that we must treat the whole person. That could mean having programs that teach English, instigating warm hand-offs to ease in the referral process, or training pediatricians on how to spot cavities. Gomez has truly inspired me to look at the bigger picture of community health and understand that all health in the United States is global and health around the world is local.

Another important theme that came out of our conversation was the importance of health care education in the United States. Gomez highlighted the necessity of investment into primary care facilities and integrated education to reduce the stresses on emergency departments and their services. One powerful piece of advice that Gomez shared is that we should always challenge ourselves to learn more and surround ourselves with smart people who inspire us.

Maddie Marran (H'25) is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University studying global health. She is a student in the Conversations in Health: Global to Local class.