Daniela Negrete and Mariana Fernandes Gragnani in front of a short brick wall with Monroe Park in the background.
Daniela Negrete (left) and Mariana Fernandes Gragnani have helped lead Collective Corazón, a student organization that aims to break down cultural barriers in health care. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

From the heart, VCU student group promotes Latinx health equity

Collective Corazón’s efforts include a spring symposium that spotlighted professionals and inspired aspiring practitioners.

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In classrooms and labs, Mariana Fernandes Gragnani and Daniela Negrete have focused on biomedical engineering studies. But beyond lectures and experiments, they have devoted themselves to promoting health equity for the Latinx community.

Fernandes Gragnani and Negrete have been leaders of Collective Corazón, a Virginia Commonwealth University student organization that aims to break down cultural barriers in health care. The Spanglish name – “Collective Heart” in English – reflects the multilingual membership and commitment.

“We see our organization as bringing people with different backgrounds together and serving the same purpose,” said Fernandes Gragnani, an Honors College student who will graduate in spring 2024. “The Latino and Hispanic community contains several different subcommunities within it. The idea of being Collective Corazón acknowledges our different backgrounds, and we're better for it. But we also come together as one, for this important effort that is Latinx health care equity.”

Added Negrete, who is a May 2023 graduate and who was a member of the Honors College at VCU: “We are all collectively fighting for this goal, which is to empower the Latino community, to support them, to overcome health barriers and also other barriers that may affect their lives as well, so that they can live a healthy and happy lifestyle.”

As aspiring health care practitioners of South American descent, they have seen the challenges that face Spanish-speaking patients.

As a volunteer interpreter for a Richmond-area health nonprofit, Negrete knew that diabetic Latinx patients would be unlikely to follow a clinician’s advice to shift away from traditional foods. She saw how even with an interpreter, a conversation between practitioner and patient could be stilted, unclear and incomplete.

Fernandes Gragnani, who was born and raised in Brazil, had similar experiences with another area nonprofit that had few conversant providers. “The interaction with a Spanish-speaking patient is completely different if you're a Spanish-speaking provider versus an English-speaking provider using an interpreter. It just flows a lot better if you're able to communicate with that patient in their native language and they feel a lot more comfortable.”

Key voices in health care

To encourage Spanish-speaking students considering health careers, Collective Corazo´n organized a symposium in March. "Latinx in Healthcare Virtual Symposium: Latinx Leadership & Resilience” included doctors from Virginia and beyond who outlined key issues as well as successful programs and ideas.

Participants included Ricardo Correa Marquez, M.D., an endocrinologist from the University of Arizona who spoke about a diabetes and a weight-management program using community health workers and volunteers. Other speakers were from VCU, the University of Virginia, University of Washington, Cleveland Clinic, Mount Sinai Health System and the National Institutes of Health. A number of attendees spoke about their journeys into medicine, nursing or dentistry.

Over the course of her life and education, Negrete has met few Latinx physicians. She said Max Luna, M.D., at UVA, whom she met at a summer program, has been influential and supportive in helping her forge her professional path.

“So, we thought that the ‘Latinx in Healthcare Virtual Symposium’ would provide that confidence and assurance to students that typically aren't represented in these fields, as well as educate them about what needs to be done within the field as well,” Negrete said.

The organizers of the event wanted to create a one-stop-shop symposium where students could come and get a lot of information from various points of view.

“And that's why we included so many different providers, including physicians, nurses, dentists, researchers and professors that could speak about the topic in so many different angles,” Fernandes Gragnani said.

As Virginia’s Hispanic-identifying population continues to grow, Fernandes Gragnani and Negrete say VCU can respond by encouraging and accepting more Latinx students into health fields, and by supporting health care workers through more Spanish classes and medical workshops.

They also hope that decision-makers at VCU will be inspired to adopt initiatives presented at the “Latinx in Healthcare Virtual Symposium: Latinx Leadership & Resilience” which highlighted other universities’ programs that specifically address health disparities.

They point to University of Washington’s Latino Center for Health as one successful model. That university has multiple initiatives including collaboration with its School of Social Work and School of Medicine to facilitate students’ interaction with the local Latino community to provide resources to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Fernandes Gragnani and Negrete say another successful model VCU could emulate is University of Virginia's Latino Health Initiative, which includes programs for undergraduate and graduate students to be involved in educating the Latino community of various health factors, such as how to manage diabetes and empowering the community to learn skills toward healthier lifestyles, such as swimming lessons.

After graduating, Negrete will work at an NIH lab focused on virology and immunology, and she hopes to create vaccines that require fewer dosages. The move fits in with her social justice and advocacy focus, which was sharpened by the COVID pandemic.

“Viruses don't discriminate against people. They just infect whoever they can,” Negrete said. “But due to social factors we have within the U.S., typically minorities such as the Latino and African American communities are more susceptible to being infected.”

A mission of participation

Collective Corazo´n was established at VCU in 2018 by Roma Kankaria, who is now a medical student at Vanderbilt University. With a goal of educating the community about issues facing Hispanic residents, such as diabetes, lack of insurance and reluctance to receiving health care because of citizenship status, the student group has a head of education.

Some of the roughly 300 student members engage in research under faculty adviser Indira Sultanic, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences’ School of World Studies and a certified health care interpreter. They have investigated health disparities in Afro-Latinx populations, culturally competent nutrition services for Spanish-speaking communities and mental health in Latinx communities. Students help the nonprofit Read to Them by translating documents from English to Spanish that encourage literacy.

Sultanic said what she admires most about Collective Corazón members is “their insatiable desire to learn about the many issues and challenges that the Latine community faces, both in Richmond and beyond, and their drive to educate – and, through active community engagement, be part of the solution.

“Through their efforts, they are actively promoting and advancing social justice in our community, and advocating for access to services, visibility and participation of Latine individuals in all areas of daily life,” Sultanic said. “They truly live the Collective Corazón mission.”