A Resilient Journey from Trauma to Success
Date Published: October 31, 2018
Angela Diaz, MD, PhD, MPH, discusses her remarkable journey from high school dropout to Ivy League graduate and now director of the Mount Sinai’s renowned Adolescent Health Center. Find out how altruism and playing to her strengths helped Dr. Diaz succeed.
“Every time I talk to a young person—they may be suicidal or feel bad about themselves—we sit down with them and try to help them cope and stay in school. Just seeing how that young person evolves is so rewarding. And it doesn’t just help them become more resilient. Every day I get more resilient from this work and giving back to them.”
Have you ever felt like you've reached the lowest point in your life and can't recover or move forward? In this episode of Road to Resilience, we have an incredible guest who's going to explain how to overcome this by sharing her own experience. We're hearing from Dr. Angela Diaz, she's a pediatrician at Mount Sinai and runs our renowned Adolescent Health Center. She is a true survivor. She has such a compelling story to share about resilience and her own life. She's had to deal with significant trauma and challenges from the time she was very young and Dr. Diaz will explain how optimism, playing to her strengths, and altruism has helped her bounce back from a very difficult past and achieved great success.
Hello, Dr. Diaz and thank you so much for being with us today. You have an amazing story to tell and we're so excited for you to share it with us because it's going to inspire so many people.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 00:51
Thank you so much. And thank you for allowing me to do this.
What does resilience mean to you?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 00:59
Resilience is basically how people adapt to other circumstances. How well they're able to cope and move forward despite the challenges that they face. Some people say that it's the ability to bounce back, but I often think to bounce back to what? Right? Because if you were not in a good place to start with, then you need to bounce beyond that.
And you have certainly adapted in your life. What makes you so resilient?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 01:32
I think what makes me so resilient is a number of things. One is that I'm very optimistic by nature. I'm one of those people that not only sees the glass half full, I see the water coming over. Everything is possible.
Where would you be without resilience?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 01:53
It is really interesting because people always say, "Oh, you're so resilient. How did you make it?" I had quite a challenging life, but because of I think my temperament, my optimism, the love of my mother and many wonderful people that I met along the way, I think that helped me be able to move forward. Right? You know when you are traumatized, there's always the scar. So that never goes away. But you learn to cope and you learn to move forward.
Take us back to your childhood and how you grew up.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 02:28
I grew up in the Dominican Republic and my mother was a young mother. She was just 20 when she had me, she was a single mom and didn't have the opportunity to go to school. So she was illiterate and she had to work to support me, so it was challenging, we lived in extreme poverty. In order to get a job to support us, she had to leave me behind with my grandmother. My mother moved to Santo Domingo. My grandmother was in extreme poverty and had to work.
One day, she was boiling some either milk or beans on the floor, they used to cook on the floor. And I was nine months old, I was crawling and the hot, boiling thing tilted and I got burned. So that was a very early sort of medical trauma that I had. It was quite severe and we never had health insurance. I never got proper healthcare, I never got immunized even as a child, we never had the money. So when I was four and I went to the store to buy the food we were going to cook that day, I said to my grandmother, "I want to carry the bottle of oil." That's what I wanted to carry, it was a large jar and she gave it to me. So I'm walking with my grandmother and I trip and the bottle broke and I fell on top of that, so I got a major cut in the abdomen and they had to take me to the hospital. They didn't know how I was going to do after that. They said that I was quite sick from it, but the good thing that happened from it is that it was really the first time that I saw doctors that I can remember. Seeing the doctors, nurses and other personnel, they just seemed like wonderful people. Ever since that time when I was four, I said I want to be a doctor. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know what it would take. But I always said I want to be a doctor. And every time that someone asked me, since then I said I'm going to be a doctor.
So you were inspired then and there?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 04:46
Yeah, and I also loved school. So I had that thing that was very positive. I was very good in math as a child, like in fourth and fifth grade and you know, supposedly girls were not supposed to be good in math. So I got a lot of positive reinforcement through that. Even when I was in fourth through sixth grade when the teacher was out for math, they asked me to teach as a little kid. So that was very positive reinforcement.
How did you end up in the United States?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 05:21
When my mother came to the United States, I was left behind. So I lost my mother at that point.
And you were eight years old at that time?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 05:28
I was eight. My mother came documented, she had a green card that her husband sent for her, but they were working in a factory. And the money that they were making, they had to support themselves, they had to send money to my grandmother to support my siblings.
And how many siblings?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 05:50
Two younger at that time, I'm the oldest. In order to bring us to the U.S., they had to show the U.S. Government that they had enough money for an affidavit. And at that time, if I recall correctly, they needed to put $2,000 together. Well with the factory salaries, having to support themselves, support their children in the Dominican Republic, it was very hard for them to put those $2,000 together, and that took years. I was able to come because my father, who had a family, decided to get visas for all his children including me. Then once he got my visa for me, my mother said send her to me, to New York. So I came. I remember the first time that I came, I was 12. When the visa was up, I didn't want to go back. My mother didn't want me to go back, I mean, I had not seen my mother for years. So because of that, I overstayed my visa. So I became technically undocumented.
And how did that affect you? Were you concerned?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 07:03
Yes, I always remembered that when people were undocumented, everybody was afraid. Even though my mother and stepfather were documented, I was not, so I was always anxious about that. So they sent me back and I had to live outside the country for over a year before I was able to get my green card. So that was another separation. I have all of these losses, and also my education was not continuous or strong.
So then you finally end up back in the U.S. for good?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 07:33
Yes, I was almost 15 when I came back to the U.S. and when I was in ninth grade in Harlem, I was in a classroom with young people that were from various different countries. They did not speak English--some spoke French, some were from Eastern Europe, some were Spanish speaking--and they had seventh, eighth and ninth graders altogether. We all had different abilities, some of the students I don't think were even literate in the language. And we had a young teacher who was 21. I always say that she was gifted. She one day said to me, you know, you seem to be really good with math, so I'm going to send you out of this class to an algebra class. I got an "A" in the algebra class. And she just was able to see that.
So you were a good student through high school?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 08:30
I was a good student. I love math and it was easy for me. I didn't have to work on it. And then as I got older, I also loved physics.
Describe what happened to you when you were in high school, and the path that you chose?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 08:42
I had a tough life as we discussed. But because I never got the help, I never knew where to go, I think all that trauma and stress sort of came to a point that I just sort of fell apart, that's how I sort of say it. And I got very depressed. I just stopped going to school.
So you dropped out of school?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 09:12
I dropped out of high school. Yes.
Here you are. Someone who wanted to be a doctor from a young age.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 09:19
And you almost gave up that dream.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 09:21
Yeah. And that, that's why I think it's so important to help young people because you know, it was not a matter that I couldn't understand the subject academically. It was emotional. It was that I was depressed. It was that I had been traumatized and that I also didn't have the access to either medical services or mental health services that I needed.
She knew she needed help, and that's what brought her to the Adolescent Health Center at Mount Sinai, a unique place that provides free medical treatment and counseling to at risk youth.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 09:55
When I can came to the center, I had to face my fear. They have to help me with whatever my life had been. But they didn't give up and they encouraged me to get back to high school. They really treated me and I always said they glued me back together. If it was not because of the center, only God knows if I would have still been a high school dropout and not pursued my dream to go on to become a doctor.
Within just a few months, Dr. Diaz went back to high school. She took all advanced placement classes, graduated on schedule, and went on to city college.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 10:32
I had three jobs in high school, then I had to work through college. At one point I was a factory worker, I worked in the same factory that my mother and my stepdad used to work. And when people asked me what do you want to do, I said, "I want to be a doctor." And people look at me like, are you kidding me? You're a factory worker. How can you be a doctor? But I just kept saying the same thing. I didn't get distracted from that. So one day I went to Columbia and I said, "I want to be a doctor, what do I need to do?" So they gave me an application, and I completed the application. I actually did it by pen and paper right there. And then I come back to her with the application and she said, what is this? I said my application and she looks at me like, lady, you know, people don't do that. People usually go home and spend a lot of time doing the application.
Especially at Columbia right? That's not an easy school to get into.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 11:33
And then I got a letter of acceptance to Columbia Medical School, which was a huge break for me.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 11:40
Dr. Diaz didn't stop there. She continued her medical education at Harvard and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she focused on pediatrics. You achieved such success and you did that by being a resilient person and playing to your strengths. How did you play to your strengths?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 11:59
The way that I played to my strength is by always being open. I am really open to any person that wants to help me and guide me. When I went to Columbia Medical School, I came from a background very different than most student there. Many of them have amazing schooling, many of them didn't have the life challenges that I had. So in a way it was all new to me. I had lived in neighborhoods that were very ethnic, but I was very open, the students were wonderful. They wanted to help me. I work hard, I persevere, I don't give up easily, and I think probably that combination, just seeing possibilities and just keep trying, I think helped me move forward.
And you knew what you were good at from a young age and you kept pursuing that you did not give up.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 12:54
Yes. I knew that I was good in math and science, but mostly physics. And I remember when I was younger, people kept saying, "Oh, you should be an engineer, you should do something that uses math." And I say, "I want to be a doctor." But yes, I think it was getting that positive reinforcement from people, not just, you know, sometimes young people just get negative feedback all the time for behaviors that are very typical adolescent behaviors. You know, they are experimenting, they are trying, they are growing. But it's important to serve as role models for young people. It's important to be connected to them.
You have now turned your adult career into providing a support system for others who grew up potentially similar to you. You're now running the Adolescent Health Center at Mount Sinai, the same place that helped you as a teen.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 13:53
I mean, I love, this is not like work for me. This is a calling and to be able to work in a place like this, the same place that helped me when I was a teenager, and then for me to be able to do the same thing with other young people is truly a gift.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is a big deal and it has become the largest adolescent health center in the United States. You serve more than 10,000 vulnerable and disadvantaged youth every year. How does it make you feel to know that you've achieved such great success?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 14:26
I feel really blessed. I feel really lucky that this program is here. It helps build resilience. It also helps not just with individuals but families, communities. We are like a major resource for the city.
In your professional life, you're also playing to your strengths. You knew that you had a gift and a desire to work with adolescents and another resilience factor that applies here is altruism, giving back without expecting anything in return, that comes into play here as well.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 15:00
I can do this day and night, and people often say, "How come you don't get burned out? You work with incest survivors, rapes, sex trafficking, HIV?" You know, and somehow, I just get more energized because we see the impact that we're having on the young people. We have the most amazing staff who really want to transform the lives of these young people.
How has your life been enhanced because of giving back?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 15:29
My life has been enhanced because every time that I talk to a young person that I see, they may come here and they may be suicidal, they may be feeling terrible about themselves, and then we sit down with them and we spend time trying to understand what happened, trying to help them cope, develop strategies, go back to school, stay in school. And just seeing how that young person evolves and heals. That's very rewarding. To me, that's the biggest gift. I will do this work for the rest of my life. They also gave so much back that I cannot tell you how meaningful that is.
And that makes you more resilient too?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 16:16
Absolutely. Every day I get more resilient. The other thing that I appreciate is that I can do any type of work. I have done all types of work. To me, no job is beneath me. If I need to do whatever, I'm very comfortable, you know, I can do the thinking and the research and the clinical work, but if I need to, I can do any type of job. I have done it before. I know how it feels and I appreciate every single person, every single staff. It doesn't matter if you are the person cleaning, I think that person is just as important because it's part of the team. I value every person because every person contributes to the success of whatever we are trying to achieve.
You're proof that you can rise above a bad circumstance and thrive.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 17:08
Yes, I have been able to thrive and move forward. I also feel that every young person that comes here, their life gets a little better and some of them transform, just like my experience, sometimes even more have young people here that came with many, many issues, many challenges as a young teenager, now they are getting their PhD at Harvard, they are going to all types of school doing very, very well. So many people can do that, but we cannot do it by ourselves. So I guess the main point that I want to make is, yes, we can do well, we can thrive, we can be resilient, but you need to have the support, the support from the family, the support from the community, the support from your schools. Having a place like ours, like the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center that understands young people, understands trauma, all of us working together can create miracles with a young person's strength.
You don't just use altruism professionally. We want to talk about one of your heroic acts on a personal level. You donated one of your kidneys to a close friend.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 18:19
Yes, I did. In 2012, I had a friend that needed a kidney. They had tested different people, including family members and for whatever reason they had not found a donor and they tested me and we were in alignment. So, I decided I was going to do it, I just thought it was the right thing to do.
How did giving back help you?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 18:46
I feel that if we can improve someone else's life, why not, right? And that sometimes you may need to sacrifice yourself a little, but that the balance overall for the community, for the group or for the family, it all works out. So that's how, that's how I saw it.
Donating the kidney is not an easy process.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 19:11
It's not an easy process, some of my blood tests were a little off, like the hemoglobin A1C. I'm not a diabetic, but I was prediabetic and they just felt that it's better if I keep my two kidneys. But anyway, I exercised, I ate well to get my hemoglobin A1C to a level that I could donate to this person. And so that's what I did. One of the things about being resilient that I'm not good at is exercising. It was very difficult because it's something that does not come natural to me. Some people love to exercise naturally. Some people eat healthy and wonderfully all the time. That's just not me. And why it's not me? I have no idea. I don't know if it was the way I was raised. I don't know. You know? But that's, that's one of my challenges in term of resilience. I could do much better in that area.
You did something remarkable after donating that kidney, one month after that, you started training for the New York City Marathon.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 20:14
Oh yes, the surgery was the end of July, I think it was July 24th, if I remember correctly. And I said to the doctor right then and there, I'm supposed to run the marathon in November, can I do that? Then they say, yes, you can, you know, train. And I did., in a very short period.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 20:35
You do this yearly run, it's called Run for Teens where you raise tens of thousands for the Adolescent Health Center. This is really putting you to the test.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 20:44
So I had committed to run the marathon to fundraise for the center. And when I make a commitments, I like to meet them. That year I was ready to run, but that year was Hurricane Sandy. So the marathon was canceled, but I was ready to go out there and do it. And I'm running the marathon this year also.
So running marathons, this is now a tradition for you?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 21:10
Yeah, but I think this will be my last one because I'm getting older and I do it to fund-raise and we have a team of 15 people that are running, too, as a fundraiser for us, but they are younger. But I decided to do it again this year because it's our 50th anniversary, so I want to raise a lot of money for the program.
What are your goals going into the marathon? You want to beat your time from the years past?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 21:34
No, my goals are to try to finish without injuries and to complete, that's it. It doesn't matter how long it takes me. It doesn't matter if they put me on the sidewalk because I have taken so long and they need to clean the streets.
How do you use resilience to get through it?
Dr. Angela Diaz: 21:52
Well, you know, as I said, my weakest point is exercising. So it's a challenge, I have to try to persevere. I have to try to get out there.
And the end result is so worth it to help these teens.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 22:13
Oh yes. Yes, absolutely. The thing that is wonderful about the marathon is that, that day New York City becomes one. I had never experienced anything like that. All colors, class, age, religion... we all belong. They are all there to support the runners. It's an altruistic expression from the city to the runners. And I just love to see when people help each other, when people don't get hung up in their differences, but their similarities and common purpose.
Well we wish you luck at this year's marathon!
Dr. Angela Diaz: 23:00
Host: 23:01 Congratulations on your success and all of your hard work in helping others.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 23:06
Thank you so much.
We help a lot of people can learn from you.
Dr. Angela Diaz: 23:08
Thank you for the opportunity.
And that's it for another episode of Road to Resilience. You don't want to miss what we have in store for you next month. We're sitting down with some brilliant students from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who share how they stay resilient while dealing with incredible stress. This includes facing their fears and prioritizing their well-being. Their stories are something everyone could learn from and apply to their own lives. That's out November 28th. To listen, just head over to iTunes and remember to subscribe and rate us.