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“The truth is that I never like to be called a hero,” says Dr. Yomaris M. Peña. “I went into medicine by vocation.”
Her mission of service has made this physician, who is passionate about life and her work, focus completely on taking care of people since COVID-19 broke out. She did this through the SOMOS network of doctors, which serves New York’s most vulnerable population. Her work has saved many lives, especially among Hispanics and African Americans.
“We all had to speak in Spanish for the community, so that our Latinos would not be left behind.”
Yomaris Peña is also of Latino descent. “I was born in the Dominican Republic. And when I was two months old,” she explains, “they took me to live in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were Dominicans who had emigrated to the Island of Enchantment. I lived there until I was 11 years old and then I went back to the Dominican Republic”.
The return was not easy: “I had to learn,” he says, “to adapt to changes because it was a Dominican Republic where there was a shortage of gas, little electricity, fuel shortages…. And I had left a place that had become Americanized and where there was abundance. So the adaptation was difficult, but it made me resilient.”
First lesson: her dad helped the disadvantaged
“In Puerto Rico,” she continues, “I had the opportunity to see my dad helping other people when he himself was an immigrant. They didn’t even have a single peso or a place to sleep. Through what I saw with my father about how he helped the Dominican community, he taught me that when we’re in much more privileged positions, we must reach out a hand.“
Her first contact with death
The second life lesson was a very painful one. “I graduated in the summer of 2003 and he was very happy to see me graduate. But in December of that same year, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, adenocarcinoma of the liver, which is fatal in most cases. He was 51 and I was 23.”
“It took me back to my faith”
Her father’s death caused the doctor, who had become an atheist in college, to convert back to the faith: “Seeing how my dad was so anchored in God rekindled my faith for me. That was important to me.”
That example of her father and that faith have sustained her on the long, hard road of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“In 2020,” she recalls, “the pandemic arrived. Before that, since 2012, I was the medical director of an internal medicine center in Washington Heights. We were dedicated to prevention, to promoting health in the community. When the pandemic hit, my life changed. Through SOMOS Community Care, where I am a board member, we began to take action in the different areas that the community required, on behalf of SOMOS and with the leadership of Dr. Ramón Tallaj, its founder and president.
That was the beginning of a journey that has not yet ended: “I ended up being the coordinator of the first screening center in the Bronx,” she explains. “There was nothing in place there. The positive rate was 50%. It was a time when nothing was known about the virus.”
But “before that,” she notes, “we were tasked with going to the New York Stock Exchange so they could continue their work before they went digital for the first time.”
Then would come “the Lehman College project. We were there for three months.”
“Then,” he notes, “the massive project began. The tests were done in small churches, in small schools. And there, we were part of the first place offering care in the Lower East Side, in Manhattan. It was our turn to help that community and it was very nice.”
The summer of 2020 came and “when the incidence of the coronavirus in New York had gone down, the governor of New York asked SOMOS, through Dr. Tallaj, to send medical groups to the states that had lent us a hand during difficult times. So we went to Houston, Texas.”
“There,” she says, “we spent two weeks testing Latino communities and we also went to an African-American community. When this project ended, we were sent to St. Petersburg, Florida. The population there was different: it was an aging population that was afraid. They had spent months and months in seclusion and couldn’t find anywhere to go to get tested.”
For Dr. Peña, the time then came when she was able to see her usual patients. “In September, October, November and December, I was able to dedicate myself to preventive medicine again,” she says.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Until, as she says, “the light at the end of the tunnel came, which is vaccination.”
“We’ve been working with the vaccination project,” she explains, “since Epiphany, when we started vaccinating our people. Unfortunately it was in emergency centers, not in our clinics, because they never gave us that access.”
It’s a serious complaint that Dr. Yomaris Peña repeats. “Yes, we were there for the tests. But the vaccine never arrived at our offices. When I saw this, I couldn’t remain calm because SOMOS was number 1” in going out to take care of the population when the pandemic appeared.
Now came the next step in the fight against the coronavirus. “We have to vaccinate the city,” they thought with determination. “Let’s vaccinate the city.” “So that’s when I became the medical director of the Aqueduct Center, which is one of the largest vaccination centers in New York. From January to March we vaccinated 90,000 people and we continue to do so.”
“We also,” she adds, “have other pop-ups with which we go to areas of under-resourced people and set up vaccination centers. We’re there for 2 to 3 days and then we go back for their second dose of the vaccine.”
The worst thing about this pandemic
“For me,” Dr. Peña confesses, “the hardest thing about this pandemic was losing beloved patients.” She remembers with special affection and pain one patient who was “a mother from San Francisco de Macorís, a midwife.” “Seeing that a woman who brought so much life died alone without holding her children’s hands, and died in a cold room…you know? That hurt me a lot.”
“How could they protect their senior citizens if ten were living in one apartment?”
Because in her eyes, human life has a sacred value: “Human beings are not born to be born alone, and human beings are not born to die alone.” That approach was a very difficult and painful challenge to make possible as a physician during the pandemic. “Despite telling the population ‘try to wash your hands,’ to distance themselves from their senior citizens to protect them…but how could they do that, if ten were living in one apartment?”
“And when they’d call me and say, ‘Doctor, my mom has anxiety’… I had to immediately respond, ‘That’s not anxiety, she can’t breathe; you have to take her to the hospital.’ And knowing that person was going to die… That was very difficult.”
“We were left for last”
Dr. Peña and all of the physicians at somos defend the lives of all people. “In the vaccination process,” she explains, “it hurt me like a wound in my soul to see that despite how much we sacrificed, despite how much that we gave our community, we were left for last.”
“And we, the doctors—because we didn’t belong to a hospital, we didn’t exist. But at the time when no one wanted to go out [to attend to the population], we did. For me that was very difficult,” she laments.
Despite the real difficulties, Yomaris Peña has shown herself to be full of life, positive and cheerful throughout this time, and that has helped to push the entire SOMOS team forward. When she thinks back on the past year, she says: “I have re-evaluated life. Because I’ve always appreciated life from the moment my dad died at a young age and I understood that you don’t take a dollar with you. You take what you gave and you leave what you did. So, through this experience I’ve understood the value of life again.”
Proud of all the doctors
Unfortunately, she hasn’t been spared tough situations and problems: “I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all,” she says. Nonetheless, there are positives that have weighed much more heavily in the balance. “At many moments I feel very proud of all the doctors who’ve worked around us. We’ve created a wonderful team. First because of God and then because of Dr. Tallaj’s leadership. And, third, because we showed that we have the ability to lead, and also compassion, connection, and knowing how to handle large crowds.”
Fighting for uniforms and masks, so that no one would die
“Do you think it was easy,” she says, “to work with the New York State Department of Health when they didn’t want anyone to wear a mask in the beginning, when they didn’t want to approve the different uniforms we needed for screenings? That’s when I had to bring out Yomaris, because none of my patients and none of my doctors were going to die because I didn’t fight”.
What dream does Dr. Peña have in mind now as a doctor? The answer is very clear: “For the city of New York and the United States, after having gone through such difficult times, for the Latino and African-American immigrant community to be seen as the same as the white Anglo-Saxon community.” And she explains why: “Because the truth is that the disparity that exists is too great, and seeing it every day hurts. The only thing you can do is keep working and keep fighting to get to that equality.”
I feel that SOMOS should be a national network,” she says, “and then become a global network. Because SOMOS is compassion, SOMOS is care, SOMOS is prevention, SOMOS is dedication, SOMOS is sacrifice. Look how many doctors died, but they didn’t care because they gave their lives for their community. It’s very sad, but we must remember them and value them.”
Yomaris Peña reflects on the raison d’être of this network of doctors that cares for the most vulnerable wherever it finds itself: New York today, but it’s open to expansion wherever it’s needed. “SOMOS means ‘we are’ in English: we are all together. We have to remain united for the well-being of our community.”
“I am holding on tight to God’s hand.”
More than 15 months after the beginning of the pandemic and in the midst of the fight against COVID-19, her hope remains. “I’m holding on to God’s hand. I talk to God a lot; I talk to God all the time. If I’m afraid, I talk to God and say, ‘You’re in control. Help me and show me the way.’ And He always shows me.”
An unexpected prayer group
“During the pandemic,” she explains, “something very nice happened. A prayer group was started at 8:00pm, every night, with Mr. Mario Paredes (CEO of SOMOS), Dr. Ramón Tallaj, Lidia Virgil (SOMOS operations director)…. And every night at 8:00pm we all connected. And this still goes on to this day.”
That prayer group has sustained her during this time, “praying, invoking the Virgin, invoking Jesus, asking for the prayers of others… And the truth is that it has been wonderful because at a time when we couldn’t go to church, we still congregated even for half an hour and that satisfied a little our spirit that needed the bread of prayer.”
“It leads me to be a better person every day”
Yomaris Peña speaks of her faith in God the Son as Master, as King, as Friend and—why not?—as Physician who takes care of our bodies and our souls: “Knowing that there was someone as great as Jesus, with such energy, who suffered so much for you and for me, leads me to be a better person every day,” she says.