Dr. Ileana Piña (Courtesy Montefiore Medical Center)

Dr. Ileana Piña (Courtesy Montefiore Medical Center)

Latina Leaders: First Hispanic and female honored by American Heart Association for volunteerism

Dr. Ileana L. Piña was born in Havana, Cuba and moved to Miami with she was six in 1959.

In July 2011, Dr. Piña joined Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center as professor of medicine and epidemiology and population health, and vice chief for academic affairs, respectively. Her primary role is to reduce re-admission rates for heart failure patients. She also serves as a principal investigator for 11 ongoing research projects and presented on several topics at this year’s American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

Most recently, Dr. Piña was the first Hispanic and female to win the Chairman’s Award for volunteerism from the American Heart Association for her dedication to educating the community about heart health across diverse populations.

How does it feel to be recognized for your long-time dedication to heart health?
Humbling. Blessed. I think there are so many people that deserve this award more than me. I’m humbled to take it especially because I am an immigrant.

At what age did you realize you wanted to study medicine? And what pulled you towards studying cardiology specifically?
I have always loved the smell of hospitals. I was very poor, and my father died when I was nine – he had a heart attack at 49. He took me to school that morning and was dead by 3pm. After he died, my mother and I moved into the projects in Miami. When he died, we didn’t have education [about heart disease] – the American Heart Association had been founded, but that education didn’t get to immigrants like us. My mother died when I was 19 of cirrhosis of the liver.

I started college after my mother died – the rest of my family was still in Cuba. I had three jobs – modeling, tutoring, drawing blood. I’m a product of community college, because that’s all I could afford. I then went to the University of Miami, by then I was living with my aunt who had come from Cuba – but I paid for my own education.

I also have a masters in public health, because I got tired of patients not getting the right medications at the right time. Heart failure is an epidemic. We need to think differently about it – look at the population, and look at what we can institute to make a difference to patients.

What accomplishment throughout your career are you most proud of?
My daughter – the light of my life. She’s a veterinary student at Ohio State University and graduated with a BA from Duke in May.

A study recently came out saying younger Hispanic women face higher risk of death from heart attacks. Why do you think this is the case?
Hispanic women are more behind in knowledge. Hispanic women are now where Caucasian women were 10 years ago. It’s not very good. That’s why we’ve had all these campaigns in Spanish. We have the same risk factors.

RELATED: Latinos raising awareness on how to keep Hispanic hearts healthy; offer tips

What can we do to prevent this?
I’m trying to get Hispanic women to pay attention – know your cholesterol, exercise, lose weight, really take care of yourself and teach your aunts, daughters and grandmas. I have seen a lot of young Hispanic women who sat with chest pains for more than three days – it’s more the norm than the exception. There’s also a fear to go to the doctor, but more than anything else it’s a lack of acknowledgement that there’s something wrong. Symptoms are not always crystal clear. If you have symptoms, go see somebody. Don’t make up excuses. We always take care of everyone else but ourselves.

What do your daily duties entail, and what do you love most about your job?
I spend 30 percent of my time with the FDA as a consultant for devices and an internal medicine reviewer…I see patients in the clinic, in blocks of time. I’m responsible for reducing the 30-day readmission rate for heart failure. It’s unacceptably high. Patients come back for many reasons. Nobody has a perfect answer, but we’re working on it. I do clinical trials with my chief, Dr. Mario Garcia. We coordinate the clinical trials, and I mentor the fellows on their academic projects.

What piece of advice would you give a young Latina who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Do whatever you love. If you do whatever you love, you’ll never go to work.

The U.S. gives you the opportunities. I had 30 cents in my pocket when my father died, lots of hand-me-down clothes and often felt hungry, but if you keep your nose to the ground, the U.S. will give you the opportunities. That’s why I love this country. Work. If you don’t work, you don’t get anything.

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