Through her efforts to support abortion rights, abolish enforced sterilization, and provide neonatal care to underserved people, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias expanded the range of public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations in the United States, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Dr. Helen Rodriguez was born in New York in 1929. She grew up in Puerto Rico and New York. After marriage and the births of three children, she continued higher studies at the University of Puerto Rico and its Medical School, graduating with the highest honors in 1960. Following attainment of the MD and the birth of a fourth child, she went on to Internship and Pediatric Residency at the University Hospital. While serving her pediatrics residency at the University Hospital, she created the island’s first center for neonatal care.

When she returned to New York in 1970, Dr. Rodriguez decided to work in community medicine. At Lincoln Hospital, which serves a largely Puerto Rican section of the South Bronx, she headed the department of pediatrics. Her patients, among the lowest-income populations in the United States at that time, were struggling for greater political power and better health care. At Lincoln Hospital, Rodriguez-Trias lobbied to give all workers a voice in administrative and patient-care issues. She also tried to raise awareness of cultural issues in the Puerto Rican community amongst health care workers at the hospital. At that time, she was also an associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, and later taught at Columbia and Fordam universities.

Throughout the 1970s, Dr. Rodriguez was an active member of the women’s health movement. She was inspired by “the experiences of my own mother, my aunts and sisters, who faced so many restraints in their struggle to flower and reach their own potential.” After attending a conference on abortion at Barnard College in 1970, she focused on reproductive rights. She became an outspoken leader in the women’s health movement, serving on the boards of the National Women’s Health Network and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. She worked closely with the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and helped draft what became the federal guidelines regarding sterilization. In the 1980s, Dr. Rodriguez served as medical director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, where she worked on behalf of women with HIV.

In 1996, she helped found the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group dedicated to improving women’s health and well-being. She also worked as a consultant for the International Health Programs Public Health Institute, where her focus was improving family planning and health care in South and Central America. Dr. Rodriguez was a founding member of both the Women’s Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the American Public Health Association and the first Latina to serve as president.

In January 2001 she received a Presidential Citizen’s Medal for her work on behalf of women, children, people with HIV and AIDS, and the poor. Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias died of complications from cancer in December, 2001.

Read more at: cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov

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