Dr. Divina Lopez is not your run of the mill pediatrician just writing out prescriptions and yelling out “Next!” to her patients. Outside of the office setting, the 41-year-old Brooklyn-born Boricua uses social media and telemedicine to teach people how to get access to the health care they deserve, no matter their legal status in the U.S.
Her work is never done.
During the COVID-19 pandemic for example, she’s been on the phone calling parents of children from the Bronx school health centers she oversees, calming their worries about what to do or who to call during the quarantine. She doesn’t want them going outside and risking infection, she tells me.
In simpler times, another of her passions was showing parents new to the game of parenting all the right moves with an inspiring podcast called “Dancing Into Parenthood” featured on her website. Have a doubt about what weird rash or asthma symptom your child may have? Go onto her Instagram page and you’ll find her educating parents and giving pediatric advice during her free time.
Mary Vazquez, who is quoted on Lopez’s website, says of her: “As a millennial mommy, I so appreciate Dr. Lopez’s digital approach! I love that not only can I see when my children need follow up appointments, but that I can stay ‘in the know’ with current health and wellness approaches to parenting. I appreciate all of her Instagram posts and episodes on her podcast because it provides me knowledge and perspective… Which helps me make a better mommy to my little ones. She is our millennial pediatrician with tons of care for new age families.”
When I spoke to Lopez by phone she told me that she feels fortunate in her career to be creative in the way that she practices pediatrics: in the traditional office setting, urgent care, and as an expert witness. Lopez currently practices in both public health settings and at private ones, like Children of Joy Pediatrics in Hackensack, NJ. But, for Lopez, who ultimately wants to help as many people as she can, the public health care system is where she feels she can serve people better. In fact, it was working in public health since the start of her career that she learned about the horrors of the economic and social disparities in the Bronx.
“Most of the deaths happening in the Bronx of coronavirus are people who have no access to health care,” says Lopez. “I really care about the people that are affected by it. People just don’t know what their rights are. My job is about teaching parents how to advocate for themselves and their children in the health care system. They believe that no one is going to listen to them because they have been let down by the government so many times that they are skeptical when I tell them to call this number or contact this clinic.”
Many Latinos simply don’t know their health care rights or who to call for medical information if they are not insured. In New York, for example, you can call the non-emergency phone number 311 to find information about services, make complaints, or report problems. But the horror stories in New York are endless for those without a phone or who don’t speak English, says Lopez. In the Latino community many children of immigrants are eligible for health insurance if their child is sick, even if their parents are not documented. Unfortunately, many don’t know this.
What she has seen is that if Latino immigrants don’t trust you or the information they are being given, they don’t want to put their family at risk, even if someone is sick. “I try to speak their language and get them to the right people,” says Lopez. “‘Tell me what you need,’ I say to them to try to get them to open up to me. ‘I am here to provide a service to you.’”
Getting through to people isn’t a skill that comes easy to just anyone and takes true compassion. A parent with a sick child and without health insurance can sometimes be on the defensive due to fear, so it not only takes medical smarts, but psychological know how as well. In a failed health system such as the U.S.’s, teaching others about their rights and how to beg savvy with the system is what drives her.
In Lopez’s opinion, we all need a roof over our heads and having a medical home is just as important. A medical home to her means an office that you as a parent can call to consult with your primary care practitioner, doctor, or nurse about whatever concern you may have. Divina describes it as a place that you can always call to advocate for you. Whether it’s a phone number answering service that calls you back on weekends or after office hours on weekdays, it’s a medical professional that you can always go to, adds Lopez. Not an emergency room doctor that doesn´’ know your child’s case history and that you turn to because you don’t have a trusted medical home.
She has been a longtime advocate of making doctors available to patients in their homes. One of the positive outcomes of this terrible pandemic is that because of the quarantine insurance companies and medical practices were finally forced to catch up to the future of medicine. For years, Lopez was trying to push the offices she worked at toward telemedicine. Two things were standing in telemedicine’s way before COVID-19, says Lopez. One was a combination of vague laws, malpractice worries, and uncertain billing codes. The second was the technology, which is coming around, she explains. Today there are digital devices that listen to lungs, look at ears and all from the comfort of the patient’s home. After a patient is seen, a prescription is sent on the same platform to your pharmacy, with a delivery service to your house. But what if someone doesn’t have health insurance? Lopez says you can pay for a telemedicine session for around 50 dollars.
Lopez really does it all: She’s a single mom of a seven-year-old son who is also in charge of thousands of other children’s health during any given school week. Her job, which is covering case management of individual students, is to assure that the Bronx schools that she oversees have what each child needs for school. If the child has asthma (the majority of cases in the Bronx) diabetes, cancer, or a fracture, for example, her job is coordinating care for each child’s medical condition so that they can attend school like any other illness-free child can. This way they can maximize their academics. After school she coordinates workshops for parents on numerous health topics. Since asthma is her specialty, a workshop will usually include information on how to give asthma medication correctly, keep it under control, and how to get rid of asthma triggers. On the weekends she dedicates time to her young patients at the private pediatrician practice she works at.
She can relate to what it’s like growing up in an area of New York that doesn’t have the best resources. When I ask her about growing up in Bushwick she says: “It was the hood back then and scary. No cool bars like today. In the hood, most kids didn’t think of their dreams.” While she says her dream to be a doctor wouldn’t come until much later in life, the Nuyorican thanks her mother for always pushing her academically. This helped Lopez fall in love with math and science, and when she was 16 she won the For Women in Science Award and was accepted into an accelerated program in high school. This is why Lopez believes that if she can help empower parents via social media, telemedicine, or at her private practice, each child’s future will be better taken care of. “I want kids to live a normal life and to prevent possible illnesses. Because the reality is, most children are healthy.”