words by Eve Jacobs / photograph by Pete Byron
ead the headlines and you might fear walking down the streets of Newark — even in the daylight hours. But there are some who love the city and choose to dig their heels into its gritty streets, tending to its sometimes overwhelming needs with a clear conviction. Siriade Filipe-Izaguirre, DO, has come “home” to Newark — and is intent on erasing some of those nasty headlines with her steady and positive hand.
Portugal is separated from New Jersey by a large ocean, but there is an indelible link stretching between the two locales. Filipe-Izaguirre made that more-than-3,000-mile journey as a 9-year-old child with her parents and younger brother to settle in Newark’s Ironbound section. Rather than feeling wrenched from everything familiar in her native country, she thrived in her new community, which felt much like home. Portuguese and Spanish are the “native” tongues here, and the majority of businesses are owned by immigrants and cater to the Ironbound residents, most of whom have come here from Portugal and Brazil. Not unlike New York’s Chinatown in its “home away from home” feel, Ironbound has the largest concentration of Portuguese people outside of Portugal.
Filipe-Izaguirre learned, like many immigrant children, to straddle the old world (encompassing both Portugal and her home-life in Ironbound) and the new. Not knowing one word of English when she first stepped on U.S. soil, she and her brother nevertheless became fluent in less than two years. She entered Newark’s public school system in fourth grade, and by sixth grade was “mainstreamed” into all-English subject classes at her own request. Her parents continued speaking Portuguese, although they understand English, she says.
It’s those early lessons learned in the lap of a tight-knit community that guided her path into adulthood and onward. A good student with a love for drawing, Filipe-Izaguirre set her sights on a career in medicine when she was a teenager. She attended Rutgers College in Newark, majoring in biology and minoring in psychology, but with a continued interest in drawing and graphic design, and then made a beeline for medical school.
“I would draw constantly,” she says. “Even in med school, particularly in anatomy class, I would redraw everything. That’s how I would study.”
While she had several choices, UMDNJ’s School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) called to her. The school’s reputed focus on primary care and its philosophy of “holistic medicine” appealed to her, and she was not disappointed. In fact, a first-year class in osteopathic manipulation opened her eyes, and her brain, to a form of treatment she had known little about.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, osteopathic medical students spend about 200 hours of training in osteopathic manipulative medicine in addition to their other courses. “This system of hands-on techniques helps alleviate pain, restore motion, support the body’s natural functions and influence the body's structure to help it function more efficiently,” states their Website.
“One key concept…is that structure influences function. Thus, if there is a problem in one part of the body's structure, function in that area and in other areas may be affected…Another integral tenet…is the body’s innate ability to heal itself. Many of the manipulative techniques are aimed at reducing or eliminating the impediments to proper structure and function so the self-healing mechanism can assume its role in restoring the person to health.”
“I felt it came naturally to me,” says Filipe-Izaguirre. “I became very comfortable with the theory and the techniques and found it far more useful than I thought it would be, and I’ve incorporated it into my practice.” In fact, she found it could relieve her own stresses at school, as well as the headaches and back pain of fellow students.
Another highlight of her SOM years was successfully running a local chapter of an international exchange program (International Federation of Medical Students Association USA — International Health Program or IHP) for SOM students to study at medical schools abroad, as well as hosting foreign students to study in Stratford. Despite not getting the opportunity to go abroad herself, the school hosted several exchange students during her time there. “These were the first successful exchanges in the history of the school through the organization,” she says.
But the pinnacle of her physician training was her introduction to “community service.” Students and faculty at this medical school have a history of volunteering — uncovering and answering previously unmet healthcare needs in towns surrounding its campus. Filipe-Izaguirre’s own commitment to community was strengthened and she learned how to lay down the foundation for building vital community programs. After graduating in 1998, she completed a family medicine residency at St. Barnabas Health System’s Union Hospital, an osteopathic facility, and then worked in the osteopathic group practice of Drs. Michael Beams and Michele Gilsenan in Clark for several years, where she built up their house-calls program, Mobil Medi Care. “There was a great need for physicians to make home visits to take care of elderly, homebound, morbidly obese and disabled patients,” she says. “I enjoyed doing that.”
In 2004, she joined another osteopathic practice, Steinbaum and Levine Associates, this time in Jersey City, where she again found and filled a need for home visits, but in a more urban setting. “It was challenging,” she remembers. “I had the opportunity to deal with a lot of different populations, many of them immigrants. I saw how comfortable I was in doing home visits and also how comfortable I was with my skills.”
In March 2006, she returned to her “home” city to accept a position as assistant professor of medicine at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School in the Division of Academic Medicine, Geriatrics and Community Programs. Her reasons were crystal clear: She wanted to come back to Newark to build community programs that would be a vital force in a city where maintaining health can be less of a priority than the other pressing issues of its residents. She particularly wanted to help build-up the house-calls for seniors program, founded by Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH, and Keerti Sharma, MD, assistant professor of medicine. She felt that an academic environment would be supportive of new community initiatives that she envisioned. Her involvement in that program continued for more than a year.
Currently, her attention has been redirected elsewhere. Filipe-Izaguirre now spends most of her working hours at UMDCare, a hospital-based primary care clinic on the University’s campus, whose main services include providing charity care and resident teaching. There she continues to take care of immigrants and other minorities, and she says on some days she speaks not a word of English.
But her newest venture will take her into the classroom to co-direct and teach a course for third-year medical students called “Health Beliefs and Behavior.” Through some traditional teaching, but mainly case presentations and small discussion groups, she hopes to enhance these soon-to-be doctors’ understanding of the many factors that create barriers to wellness and even how concepts of wellness differ in various cultures. She wants to help her students understand the many home and social factors, as well as behaviors, which influence health.
Her words of wisdom to all those entering the medical profession: “Be a part of whatever community you find yourself in.” Her biggest wish right now: To create a community medicine rotation at the Newark medical school.
“Go out and try to understand how people in a community are living,” she advises. “What barriers do they encounter?
“More than understanding the theories, that’s what it’s all about.”