Dr. Maria E. Peña was born in New York and raised in Queens. She attended the highly competitive advanced seven-year program at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedicine where she was awarded several scholarships and graduated cum laude. She proceeded to finish the last two years of her clinical training at their affiliate school, New York Medical College, where she obtained her MD degree in 2008.
Dr. Peña completed her Internal Medicine training at North Shore University Hospital/LIJ and proceeded to pursue another two years of training to specialize in the field of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism. She developed a special interest in weight loss medicine as she saw many obese patients suffering from preventable diseases such as diabetes and other complications.As a result, in addition to being Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Endocrinology, Dr. Peña is also Board Certified in Obesity Medicine, one of only 850 physicians in North America to obtain a certification in this relatively new field in medicine.
Dr. Peña is a member of numerous Medical Societies including: The Endocrine Society, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and The Obesity Society. She recently became a member of the Dominican Medical Association. She also has publications in medical journals such as Practical Gastroenterology and has presented her work at National Conferences. Furthermore, Dr. Peña has done several interviews for the NSLIJ media, namely, "Focus on Health" and "Doctoring," as well as local television, radio and several newspapers and magazines.
In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Peña is the Director of the new Center for Weight Management at NSLIJ Syosset Hospital. She is also the Physician Champion for the Diabetes Task Force and the Director of the Advanced Inpatient Diabetes Management for Disease Specific Joint Commission Certification for Syosset and Plainview Hospitals. Dr. Peña also holds a title as an Assistant Professor at Hosftra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. She has also done volunteer work at Harlem Hospital, in recognition of which she received the Leonard Davis Fellowship.
Being a first-generation Dominican-American has shaped her in many ways, Dr. Peña tells me. Above all, her parents taught her a strong work ethic, illuminated by a spirit of sacrifice.
"When your parents are immigrants, the most important value you learn to adopt is their strong work ethic, determination, and sacrifice.My dad worked very long hours outside the home, while my mom expanded the role of a homemaker to that of a chauffeur, tutor, and mentor amongst other things.. They never took vacations or splurged on themselves. All of their resources were set aside for my sisters' and my education. Therefore, my first computer was a big investment for them. I felt I couldn't let that work go to waste. My mother sacrificed her opportunity to pursue an education in order to to take care of my younger sisters and me. She went beyond her call of duty as a mother, primarily when it came to my education, going to the library with me and making sure I did my homework. I didn't have a Nintendo or Sega but I definitely had an encyclopedia and a computer. My father always reminded me to be grateful for the opportunities that I had in this country , and I always knew that thanks to his sacrifices, I had the chance to get a better education than he had. When I saw my parents face discrimination and racism because of their language barrier and limited financial resources, they always emphasized that a good education would be my key to a better life. "
Morality, integrity, discipline, and religious faith were values of sovereign importance in Dr. Peña's family, and have sustained her throughout her life. She is the first physician in her family, having made a firm decision to go into medicine after visiting a hospital as a child.
Dr. Peña's grandmother was also a key influence in her childhood. "She lived in the countryside on a farm but she was a very modern woman for her time. She persuaded my grandfather to get a loan from the government based on his land and cattle holdings and open a small shop, like a bodega. She was a very strong role model for me. More importantly, my grandmother taught me about God, the Virgin Mary and the importance of prayer. Thanks to her I learned how to pray the rosary. "
Dr. Peña describes herself as having been an "underdog" in her first years at elementary school. "I didn't know English, even though I was born in the States. I was always the last one in everything: learning to tie my shoes, learning how to tell time, learning to count money. I remember feeling fed up with being teased and in third grade I became determined to do better. I received my first award as "Student of the Month", and became the top student in math and spelling, my two weakest areas before that. I went from worst to best. I was the first one in the district Spelling Bee from my school, as an eighth grader."
Dr. Peña feels proud and fortunate to have made it into the program at Sophie Davis. "It helped me fulfill my dream," she says. However, having finished medical school at the age of twenty-four, she sometimes faces skepticism about her abilities, based on stereotypical thinking. "When you look younger than other doctors, people think you're not as good. Also, if you're female and minority, people hold that against you. I have to work twice as hard to prove myself. I became the director of the Center for Weight Loss at the age of thirty, but I find myself resorting to quoting research studies to convince people to take the medicine I'm prescribing them. It's a double-edged sword. I'm happy to be fulfilling my dreams, but people have preconceptions about what a doctor should look like, that sometimes get in the way."
Despite the doubts she faces from others, Dr. Peña remains positive. "You have to overcome the obstacle. It's only an obstacle if you let it be one. So I may have to prove myself a little more, but at the end of the day, this just motivates me further to stay up to date with the latest in medical news and technology
"At this point I feel I'm at my peak. I'm triple board certified, which I'm proud of. I have a good position here in the health system, which is hard to come by, but I worked hard for it and earned it, so I'm happy about that."
Dr. Peña is passionately engaged in the medical effort to combat obesity. "The weight management program we've worked on creating here is pretty new, because even in the field of medicine, obesity is still not completely recognized as a disease. People say it's just a consequence of poor eating, and yes, it is, but there's much more behind that, a lot of social, environmental, and genetic issues. It's a growing epidemic, and I think that we really have to address that. Unfortunately, when you look at the numbers, about 2/3of the population is obese or overweight according to Body Mass Index (BMI), and this is particularly affecting the black and Hispanic population. A lot of socioeconomic factors are involved: access to quality food, for example, organic food, limited financial resources, and stressful lifestyles. Right now, fruits and vegetables are more expensive than a hamburger at McDonald's. I've been using my training in Obesity Medicine in working towards creating a program here for the population that will address all those aspects, not just the medical aspects. I can give somebody a pill to make them lose weight by suppressing their appetite, but that won't get at the root of the problem. My goal is to eventually offer these services to the populations that have the highest prevalence of obesity , such as the Hispanic and African-American populations."
To my question about whether the obesity epidemic has shown signs of abating, Dr. Peña answers: "Recent data shows that the prevalence of obesity is stabilizing in the pediatric population. This is due to increased awareness, particularly in our school cafeterias and increased activity in afterschool programs. But unfortunately, the same trend has not been seen in the adult population. In the past year alone, the Centers for Disease Control noted an increasein the rate of obesity amongst the adult population. . So the epidemic is still growing.
"The American Medical Association just recently recognized obesity as a disease. At the moment when that happened—hopefully-- insurance companies will be compelled to start paying for treatment. A lot of the treatment entails counseling. Before, you could counsel a patient for half an hour on diet and exercise, but the time spent was not reimbursed. So with the way the health care system is right now, unfortunately, doctors don't have time for counseling. However, if the insurance companies recognize obesity as a disease and allow us to bill for counseling, then doctors will have more of an incentive to actually promote the screening and the counseling for this medical condition. The ideal model that our program offers is to fight obesity on several fronts: we screen for comorbidities associated with obesity and hormonal problems, as well as provide nutritional and behavioral counseling. The nutritionist helps the patient come up with a meal plan, and the psychologist helps screen for anxiety, stress, or whatever is triggering the eating habits that override the body's signal of satiety. We also encourage increased physical exercise. This is the ideal model, but getting the ideal model reimbursed is hard. Replicating this model elsewhere is also hard, since we don't have that many resources. Once the insurance companies start paying for these services, more people will have an incentive for replicating these models and then we'll have more services to offer the population. For example, here, where I work, I'm bilingual, but my Hispanic patients who don't speak English can't see the nutritionist or psychologist because those specialists don't speak Spanish. Unfortunately, the populations most affected don't have these services offered to them."
Our conversation touches briefly on the state of the health care system more generally. "A lot of hospital systems are buying out private practices," Dr. Peña explains, "just because doctors can't keep up with the overhead. Between student loans, overhead, malpractice insurance, and paying the rent, doctors are barely making ends meet; so many are having to sell out to the hospital system. Insurance companies are denying payment." The Affordable Health Care Act, she concedes, has helped those who had no health insurance before, and that constitutes an undeniable important step forward. Nonetheless, the consequences of the new law for her profession are complex. "I have spent a lot of time on the phone with insurance companies trying to get things authorized and approved. People complain that doctors don't have time for their patients, and it's true, because of all the paperwork we have to fill out. The insurance companies won't pay, and that takes away the ability of doctors to give the best care."
Looking ahead, I ask what new goals or projects she is planning to pursue in the future. "I sometimes find myself missing my roots. Last week I went to a Dominican Medical Association health fair in Washington Heights. It made me realize how much I miss working with the Spanish-speaking population, with minorities. I miss the very basic gratitude and appreciation that I feel when I work with them. Very basic things, but they are important. So my goal is to really work with my community, either through volunteering, working on education and prevention, or opening a clinic." Dr. Peña has given talks on nutrition and health issues in local libraries in Flushing, East Elmhurst, and Corona.
Finally, her advice to young people interested in careers in medicine is honest and straightforward: "People need to realize that medicine has changed drastically. Being a doctor does not mean having a nice car and going to nice restaurants. The truth is that as a physician, you work with people at the lowest points of their lives. When someone is in the hospital, they're vulnerable. People bleed, people throw up on you, people have explosive or bloody diarrhea. Working with patients is not always a clean job. It's not your typical office job. You're in the trenches with that person. People need to realize that medicine is there to serve people. You can't have it easy. People trust you with their lives. Patients trust you with everything and anything; they will tell you things that they haven't even told their priest or pastor. So you should be doing it for the right reason. Not for prestige or for money, but do it for true love. If it is your true passion, nothing can stop you.
"It's also important not to forget your roots. Following the American dream and embracing the American beliefs and ideals that lead to success doesn't mean that you have to abandon the customs and traditions that you learned while growing up at home. True success is when you are able to embrace both. When some people achieve financial or professional stature, they can sometimes seek to disassociate themselves from their culture in hopes of creating a new identity. Unfortunately, I know people who are Dominican, but because they want to be considered 'classy,' they no longer choose to participate in our unique customs and culture—for example: merengue, bachata, fried plantains, and so on—in fear of falling into a stereotype that others have placed on us, particularly, that these things are associated with lower socioeconomic level. Our upbeat music and unique dishes are part of what characterizes our Dominican history and folklore -- not a reflection of our financial status. While it is true that as we diversify our social circles and interact with friends and colleagues of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, we are more likely to acquire different cultural tastes and practices. However, we should never undermine our own. It is important not to forget who you are. I never deny my roots. I think we should be more proud. I want to give our population a new identity, while at the same time never forgetting the traditions of our beautiful Quisqueya.
"I can definitely relate to the fact that as immigrants or children of immigrants, we face many challenges that make it harder to achieve our dreams. Therefore, when we do make it to the top--we are very proud, and rightfully so. I am the first to agree that you should never minimize your accomplishments and you should definitely be proud. However, instead of turning our backs to a culture that sometimes reminds us of the strife and hardships that we once endured, let us give back and be a role model so that more people can join us and enjoy the view from the top. Lastly, no matter how great you become, God is always greater and all that I am is thanks to my Creator."