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The doctor who studied without light: Ramón Tallaj, the soul of SOMOS

Aleteia - published on 07/06/18

He once studied without electricity; now, he’s a shining light for thousands of people. This is the extraordinary life journey of Dr. Ramón Tallaj.

Tallaj’s career in the Dominican Republic was at its peak when his life took an unexpected turn. The Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York called him and asked him to help underserved Latinos in the city. He accepted, passing up an opportunity to become the Dominican Republic’s Minister of Health and moving to New York instead.

The result of that call was Tallaj’s creation of the network of doctors called SOMOS Community Care, which offers personalized, holistic, patient-centered healthcare to individuals and families participating in Medicaid in New York City. SOMOS’ network of doctors has provided primary care to thousands of Latin Americans, especially Dominicans. It serves as the main point of contact for primary medicine for many people in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn.

From tragedy to vocation

Medicine runs in Tallaj’s family. His uncle was a pediatrician who set up a clinic to help families in the Dominican Republic affected by mudslides.

Tragedy touched his family when he was very young: “I had an 8-year-old cousin—may he rest in peace—who died of leukemia,” Tallaj says. “I lived through that and I wanted to correct it. I saw how difficult it was for…people.”

When he recalls “the things I had to go through,” he speaks with humility and pride. “There was no electricity in my [part of the] country,” he says. “I often had to study by candlelight or wait for the light of day.”

He’s inspired by the examples of his uncle and his father. Tallaj always said he would be successful—that he’d have a house, a car, a family, and travel the world. He had ambition and tenacity. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to be the best and the first,” his family told him.

But Tallaj believes that having wealth without helping others has no meaning. True success and happiness come from giving back. That’s how he approached his training and how he pushed his career forward, becoming first a doctor and then a benefactor and manager of SOMOS.

A childhood without privileges

Tallaj remembers growing up in poverty. “One does not forget the deprivations with which one lived,” he says. “I had [only] two pairs of pants, and if I fell playing ball—I was very athletic—and one ripped on me, my mother had to put two patches [to mend the tear]…so it would not be noticeable.”

From these hardships, he went on to manage 2,500 doctors and carry out humanitarian work.

Yet instead of retreating from the world to savor having “made it,” Tallaj has done the opposite: “I didn’t want to be like people who disappear after they get to a certain level.” He is a fixture in his neighborhood, interacting with the people there, eating in “the same restaurants of our people,” because he believes in building community.

“We have to help”

Tallaj believes that “we have to help and change things there [in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico] for the people who were left behind.”

“Resources are so scarce in my country,” he says. “I don’t forget that I had the privilege of graduating as a doctor. So it’s important to create that privilege for other people.” That’s why part of his resources go toward training young people to study medicine.

“We always dedicate a part to…people who do not have resources to become professionals and doctors,” he says.

A man of faith

Though Tallaj is now a grandfather of five, his brain, he says, “remains the same as when I was a young man. I want to do so many things…as a doctor, as a human being, developing new projects with altruism.”

Faith moves mountains, and Tallaj’s life is a reflection of his perseverance. He believed in his own potential, the strength of his family, and his talent to serve his community. He does not fall into false modesty: He knows he has a gift and a responsibility.

When asked about his faith, his eyes sparkle. Tallaj is a man of faith—faith in people, faith in himself, but above all, faith in God. This is his maxim: “Lay all your worries on him, for he takes care of you.”

For more information about SOMOS, please visit: https://somoscommunitycare.org/

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