Medical Pioneers: National Hispanic Heritage MonthDiversity, Equity and Inclusion

Medical Pioneers: Honoring Hispanic Americans

Hispanic Americans have made an important impact on the healthcare field. As part of Connecticut Children’s diversity, equity and inclusion journey, and our celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we continue with our Medical Pioneers series. The series honors physicians, surgeons, nurses and scientists – both at Connecticut Children’s and elsewhere – for their groundbreaking achievements and discoveries.

The names listed below are some of the many medical pioneers who have had a profound impact on healthcare and American history.

Hispanic American Medical Pioneers at Connecticut Children’s:

  • Natalie Bezler, MD, is of Argentinian descent and practices with Connecticut Children’s Division of Hematology and Oncology. She directs the Program for Hematologic Malignancies and serves as a Physician Quality and Safety Officer for the institution. Dr. Bezler completed a fellowship in pediatric hematology and oncology at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. She earned her medical degree from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where she also completed residency and a chief residency in pediatrics. Learn more about Dr. Bezler here.
  • Henry Chicaiza, MD, is an emergency physician at Connecticut Children’s where his areas of interest include ultrasonography and diagnostic research. Dr. Chicaiza earned his medical degree from New Jersey Medical School. He completed his residency at Baystate Medical Center/Tufts University School of Medicine and completed a fellowship at Connecticut Children’s in pediatric emergency medicine. Learn more about Dr. Chicaiza here.
  • Alberto Cohen-Abbo, MD, is an infectious diseases specialist at Connecticut Children’s. Dr. Cohen-Abbo also practices as a community pediatrician, caring for patients at the Community Health Center in Hartford. He received his medical degree from the Central University of Venezuela Luis Razetti School of Medicine. He completed his residency in pediatrics at the Children’s Medical Center of Dallas and completed pediatric infectious diseases fellowships at Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and Boston Children’s Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Cohen-Abbo here.
  • Elliot Melendez, MD, serves as the division head for pediatric clinical care at Connecticut Children’s. Dr. Melendez graduated from Harvard Medical School and completed his residency at Boston Children’s Hospital. He also completed fellowships at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Melendez here.
  • Juan C. Salazar, MD, MPH, FAAP, is an infectious diseases specialist who serves as Connecticut Children’s physician-in-chief and executive vice president of academic affairs. Dr. Salazar is also the director of the Pediatric and Youth HIV Program at Connecticut Children’s and serves as professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine. Dr. Salazar was born in Colombia and moved to the United States at the age of 11. He followed in his father’s footsteps when entering the medical profession. Dr. Salazar attended medical school in Colombia, completed his training the United States, returned to Colombia to establish his medical practice, and eventually settled in Connecticut to practice medicine at Connecticut Children’s. Learn more about Dr. Salazar here.
  • Olga Toro-Salazar, MD, serves as Connecticut Children’s director of non-invasive imaging. Dr. Toro-Salazar earned her medical degree at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, where she is from. She completed her pediatric residency at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and completed fellowships in pediatric cardiology at the University of Minnesota and cardiac MRI at Boston Children’s Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Toro-Salazar here.
  • Ilana Waynik, MD, is a board certified pediatric hospitalist in the Division of Hospital Medicine, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and a quality officer in the Division of Excellence in Patient Safety and Quality. Dr. Waynik is the co-director of Connecticut Children’s Clinical Pathways Program, which aims to improve the quality of care patients receive at Connecticut Children’s. Through her leadership, this program now boasts over 40 clinical pathways that span acute and ambulatory care settings. This year, she was the co-recipient of the Quality Cup Award from the Medical Staff Office in recognition of the Clinical Pathways Program’s critical work during the COVID-19 pandemic for development of clinical pathways addressing the multiple phases and aspects of caring for patients and keeping team members safe, and for providing essential resources and guidance for community partners. Dr. Waynik earned her medical degree from the University of Connecticut and completed her pediatric residency at Connecticut Children’s. Her family is from Mexico. Learn more about Dr. Waynik here.

Hispanic American Medical Pioneers Throughout History:

  • Serena Auñón-Chancellor, MD, is the first Hispanic physician to travel in space. Dr. Auñón-Chancellor spent six months aboard the International Space Station conducting medical experiments related to Parkinson’s disease and cancer. She earned her medical degree from McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston in 2001 and became an astronaut in 2011. Learn more about Dr. Auñón-Chancellor here.
  • José Celso Barbosa, MD, was the first Puerto Rican to receive a medical degree in the United States, graduating with honors from the University of Michigan in 1880. Dr. Barbosa returned to Puerto Rico and established a medical practice in his hometown. Among his accomplishments, Dr. Barbosa cared for wounded Puerto Rican and Spanish soldiers during the Spanish-American War, he was an early advocate for employer-based health insurance, and he is known as father of the Puerto Rican statehood movement. Learn more about Dr. Barbosa here.
  • Carlos Juan Finlay, MD, graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1855 and returned to his native Cuba to practice medicine. Dr. Finlay is credited with solving the mystery of yellow fever by tracing it to mosquito transmission. In 1881, Dr. Finlay presented his theory at scientific conferences, but was met with skepticism. He later helped researchers affiliated with the U.S. military validate his theory, which reduced outbreaks affecting American troops during the Spanish-American war and saved lives around the world. Read more about Dr. Finlay here.  
  • Ildaura Murillo-Rohde, PhD, RN, is known for her work as an advocate, nurse, therapist and educator. Originally from Panama, Murillo-Rohde studied nursing at the Medical and Surgical Hospital School of Nursing in San Antonio, Texas where she graduated in 1948. She earned her PhD from New York University in 1971, where she became the first Hispanic dean of nursing. In 1975, Murillo-Rohde founded the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. Learn more about Murillo-Rohde here
  • Severo Ochoa, MD, graduated from the University of Madrid’s medical school in 1939 and later went on to teach at the New York University College of Medicine for 30 years. Originally from Spain, Dr. Ochoa became a U.S. citizen in 1956. Dr. Ochoa won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959 in recognition of his work discovering an enzyme synthesizing ribonucleic acid, which was vital in furthering understanding of the human genetic code. Learn more about Dr. Ochoa here.

Read additional articles in our Medical Pioneers series: Honoring the Contributions of Black Americans, Honoring the Contributions of Women and Honoring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

At Connecticut Children’s, we embrace the opportunity to further our understanding of where we have come from to create a stronger future for our organization and the communities we serve. We are fortunate that the medical pioneers mentioned in this article serve as role models and provide inspiration to our team members, children and families. We are thankful for their life-saving scientific contributions and their leadership, which continue to open doors for future generations.

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