Dr. Christina D. Guillén is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Downstate Medical Center. She is a pediatrician who also holds the titles of Pediatric Residency Associate Program Director and Child Abuse Specialist. Dr. Guillén completed her undergraduate studies at the State University of New York Stony Brook University where she received her B.S. in Psychology. She later attended The City College of New York where she received her M.S. in Biology. She received her medical degree from The State University of New York, Downstate College of Medicine. After completing her pediatric residency training at Downstate Medical Center she decided to stay at Downstate and became a faculty member in the department of Pediatrics. As a Pediatric Residency Associate Program Director she is actively involved in resident graduate medical education and training. Dr. Guillén is the child abuse specialist at Downstate Medical Center and Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn. She conducts medical examinations, reviews child abuse cases, and testifies as an expert for the Brooklyn District Attorney's office. Her research is in the field of child abuse. As a faculty member, Dr. Guillén works with the College of Medicine. She serves as a mentor to the first year medical students, and is the faculty advisor to the third year medical students interested in pediatrics, and SALUD the Hispanic medical student organization. She is a member of several medical associations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and the National Hispanic Medical Association.
In 2012, Dr. Guillén was recognized in the Latino American Who's Who, as a member of the Latin community who has attained a degree of success in her field and has made contributions to her profession, society and culture. Among the awards she has been honored with are the Trailblazer Award in Medicine and Community Service of Omega Psi Phi, Psi Lambda Lambda Chapter, and the Caribbean American Healthcare Award and the Doris H. Milman Award- Excellence as a Pediatric Resident. She is a member of the Board of Directors of The Hill Charitable Foundation's Caribbean-American Medical and Education Fund. Dr. Guillen also participates in various community outreach projects.
I asked Dr. Guillen what role her Dominican heritage had played in her career. "I'm a first generation Dominican American. I grew up in Washington Heights. My pediatrician was Dominican, so growing up in Washington Heights and having my pediatrician be Dominican, I was fortunate to see that relationship and see the importance of having a doctor that's of your culture and speaks your language serve you. When it comes to medicine and caring for patients, it's important that your doctor, especially your pediatrician, be someone who understands your language and culture. There's a lot that's lost in translation, that's lost in not understanding cultures. As a doctor, especially a pediatrician, you are an advocate to your patient and their family. I was fortunate to have a pediatrician that my mother could communicate with. He understood what she meant and she understood what he meant.
"Other than that, my parents instilled the importance of being humble, working hard and dedication in me. They left their country and family behind, and I saw that their sacrifice was great. Also, there are professionals in our family back in the Dominican Republic, and education has always been stressed in my family as the first way that you can excel in life, because immigrants want the best for their children."
Dr. Guillen's goal when she studied to become a doctor was to give something back to the Dominican community, probably by working in Washington Heights. "I practice in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It's a big mixture of African-Americans, West Indians, and the mixed Hispanic population of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Panamanians, South Americans. When I went to medical school at Downstate, I stayed and did my training in pediatrics, but I had no intention of staying in Brooklyn. I wanted to serve my Dominican community. During my three years of training I started getting a lot of Spanish-speaking, Dominican and other Latin American patients coming to see me because I was the only Spanish-speaking resident. They were so loyal and they referred their family and friends. I had a lot of patients coming from different parts of Brooklyn. When I finished my training, I was asked to stay on as faculty and when I was interviewed, 'I said I want to make a difference.' My mentor said, 'If you want to make a difference, it's better to be in Brooklyn, where you'll be one of few. In Washington Heights you'll be one of many. You'll make more of a difference serving the Dominican and Latin American community in Brooklyn.' I stayed. I didn't believe it until I started practicing and getting referrals from other families. It happens often that my Latin American or Dominican patients tell me that if it weren't for me, they wouldn't know who to take their child to. It's something about the culture, and speaking the same language that makes difference and an impact. It's ironic but sometimes you make a bigger difference when you are one of a few."
Dr. Guillen tells me about an early experience that helped inspire her to become a doctor.
"When I was in high school I had appendicitis, which was misdiagnosed. My mother always says when a patient's mother tells you that something is wrong with her child you have listen to her, even if the tests are all normal, you should listen. She says 'A mother's heart is never wrong.' For four or five days, everyone thought it was a stomach virus. But diseases don't always present themselves like they do in the textbooks. My appendicitis was a little different because of its location. My mother took me to different hospitals and the last one was a very good hospital. I had an interpreter. My mother kept saying, 'I know my child. There's something wrong with her.' Nobody believed my mother. My appendix perforated that night. I had to be rushed to the hospital and they still couldn't figure out what it was because all the pus was in my abdominal cavity. So I almost died. I was in the hospital for six weeks instead of three days. My pediatric surgeon and all the pediatricians were so good to me. My mother always reminds me that when I saw my doctors I told them, 'Thank you for saving my life, when I grow up 'I'm going to be a pediatrician so I can save other children's lives.' She always remembers that time in her life. I guess being a patient and almost dying and having to be around a lot of healthcare workers solidified my wish to be a doctor.
"I was a candy striper in the summer time when I was in high school at Presbyterian. When I first started, it was in pediatrics, but because I told the nurses and doctors how much I wanted to be a pediatrician, a really nice doctor had me shadow him. I wanted to be a doctor from the age of six or seven, and I always knew I wanted to be a pediatrician. My mother always says that when I was young I told my pediatrician, 'When I grow up and become a doctor, and I'm never going to give my patients shots.'"
Dr. Guillen believes in turning adversity into success. "The toughest challenge I faced was when I applied to medical school the first time and didn't get accepted.
in. After graduating from college I did a post-baccalaureate program at City College. I chose City College because their program had a good reputation. When I finished that program I applied to medical school and I did not get accepted, I was devastated. I did a lot of soul-searching and in the end I realized that the only thing I really wanted to be was a doctor. With the help of the pre-med advisor I entered the MBRS program and pursued my Masters degree in Biology and worked in lab at City College. I reapplied to medical school and I was accepted to numerous school.
"Not getting into medical school the first time was an obstacle, not a failure. This experience made me see how strong I was and how dedicated I was to achieve my goals no matter what challenges I was faced with. It wasn't a failure, it was an obstacle. As I tell my medical students, a failure is something you can't overcome. An obstacle is something that makes you stop, re-evaluate and re- route your path in order to achieve your goal. Latinos in general are not well-represented in field of science,
so the fact that I have a Masters degree in Biology and have research experience is a huge asset."
I ask Dr. Guillen what her proudest achievements are so far. "That I am a pediatrician and I'm able to serve the underserved community take care of Latino patients, as well as having the opportunity to train doctors and teach medical students. The most rewarding part of being a pediatrician is having the opportunity to see my patients grow from being a baby to a young adult and create a special relationship with their parents. As a pediatrician you practice preventive medicine, you make positive changes in the lives of your patients and serve as an advocate for your patients."
Finally, Dr. Guillen offers some advice for young people: "First, don't give up on your goals and dreams. Many times, people told my parents, 'Oh my God, she wants to go to medical school? It's so expensive,' and my parents were always
so supportive. They always supported me and believed in me. So stick with your dreams, regardless what people say. Surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. You're not going to achieve your goals if you're surrounded by people who are negative. It may not be somebody from your own culture or race. Stay focused. If you stumble, they're obstacles, not failures. I'm a living example of overcoming obstacles. Put yourself in the field. If you want to go into engineering, apply for different summer programs. Expose yourself while you are pursuing your career because that way, you expose yourself to people living that life. It's really important because, as a minority, not many of us are in these professions and people feel like they can't do it, but they absolutely can. Based on the current statistics there are so many reasons why I shouldn't be where I am today. God blessed me and put positive people in my life who believed in me and supported me throughout my journey.