My journey started when I arrived in the U.S. from Italy at eight years old. While learning a new language I became very sensitive to my surroundings and very passionate about wanting to help people early in life.
In high school I volunteered at a local hospital doing community outreach and began working at a therapeutic camp for children. As I was trying to decide on a graduate program, my supervisor suggested a Master’s in social work, this would allow me to follow my passion of helping people. After completing my degree, I worked in psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center with abused children. This experience exposed me to the field of health care, and led me to medical school.
Throughout my studies, I became interested in working with immigrants adjusting to a new land, and wanted to open up a culturally sensitive community mental health center in the heart of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. The community was mainly southern Italian, people who came to this country to give their family a better opportunity. Given my own similar experience, I felt this was an area in which I could make a difference.
The community, however, did not agree. I faced strong resistance, especially since Italians believe you keep your problems in the family, not share them with strangers. After a lot of outreach, slowly people began coming to our agency, which now sees 2,500 patients per month, with a waiting list. We have grown in staff, as well, with 40 therapist and four psychiatrists. I was approached by a private health care company to set up women’s inpatient programs in four parts of the state specializing in sexual trauma and eating disorders.
Part of the role was to give lectures to clinicians in the community and market the private practitioner’s efforts and other community programs. Through this work, I began to understand the fragmentation between psychological and medical services, so I proposed a program that would combine the two.