Empowered woman empowering women

Continued education empowers physician, mother and researcher to help women create healthy homes for their families
September 12, 2019

From the time she was a girl, Genny Carrillo, MD, ScD, MSPH, MPH, knew she was going places. But where and just how far took decades to unfold for her.

“I loved biology and earned good grades in science, but I wasn’t sure what career path I would take,” said Carrillo, who is the director of the Program on Asthma Research and Education and associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “Back then, there were only really three options for biology majors in Mexico: dentistry, chemistry and medicine. I knew I didn’t want to go into the first two, and I have always had a passion for helping others, so I chose medicine.”

Turns out, she chose right. After completing her medical degree at the University of Yucatán in Mexico, Carrillo worked in emergency medicine with the Red Cross, where she discovered she had found her calling.

“It was important to me to make sure my patients were doing well. If I saw them in the emergency department at night, I checked in on them in the morning and followed them until they were discharged. As a clinician, I felt pulled to be with my patients—I wanted to be there for them and make sure they were well,” Carrillo said.

Over time, as the healthcare system evolved, the demands on physicians grew and Carrillo realized she could no longer afford the time she needed with her patients to feel she was giving them her best.

“I always try to serve and help others. Health care has become so complicated, physicians don’t have time to talk to their patients anymore,” she said. “It’s difficult when a specialist needs to see 80 patients a day to pay their staff, overhead and student loans. With only five minutes for each patient, there’s not enough time to have conversations, so we can miss important information.”

A few years into her medical career, a new opportunity arose for Carrillo to serve more people with an even bigger impact.

Shortly after completing residency, Carrillo took a management position at a clinic and quickly realized she needed to learn more about health care administration. Her search for more knowledge led her to New Orleans, Louisiana, where she studied health systems management at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. While there, she was awarded a scholarship from the Mexican Postgraduate Quality Program SEP-CONACYT that allowed her to also earn a master’s degree in public health and doctorate degree in environmental health. That’s when it all clicked.

“My studies really changed my perspective because I realized that it is much more powerful to educate people on how to prevent diseases in the first place than to treat a disease that has gotten out of control,” she said.

With this new-found appreciation for public health, Carrillo relocated to McAllen, Texas, to start a public health program and conduct research. Her work caught the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and they called her to find out how to address a peculiar problem in South Texas.

The EPA was noticing that the number of hospitalizations for asthma in the Rio Grande Valley was out of proportion to the number of asthma diagnoses in the region. “Because of my work in public health, they asked me to look into it,” Carrillo said. “I discovered that there was much about Hispanic culture that can exacerbate asthma symptoms and cause asthma attacks.”

Some of these cultural practices include burning candles from Mexico that have lead in their wicks; reaching for chemicals instead of a shoe to kill roaches; using strong-scented household cleaners; and holding the belief that Chihuahua dogs take asthma away from children.

Carrillo developed a curriculum in 2008 to teach parents, teachers and school nurses how to create healthy environments for children with asthma. The lessons go over asthma signs and symptoms, medication management and adherence, and action plans in case of emergency. They also cover how to reduce common asthma triggers, like household cleaning products and air fresheners, by using healthy alternatives that are good for the environment, ourselves and our wallets. The program’s goal was to decrease emergency room visits, missed school and work days, and improve the overall quality of life for children with asthma and their families. For the past 11 years, Carrillo has been doing just that with great success in South Texas communities, and hopes to expand her program to other parts of the state.

“It is very fulfilling for me as a physician and scientist to meet people, take time to learn their issues and teach them things they can do to avoid illness and hospitalizations,” Carrillo said.

As a Latina woman and mother, Carrillo believes she has a unique advantage in this field.

“With asthma education, I usually work with mothers to help their children, and I am able to empathize with them because I am also a mother who wants the best for my children,” she said.

When asked what advice she has for aspiring female physicians, Carrillo says, “Go for it. We need physicians, and we need women to be physicians. It is a long, difficult path, but as my favorite saying goes, ‘Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness.’ We will cheer you on.”

— Lindsey Hendrix

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