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Dr. Erin Kobetz

The address may have been unfamiliar, but the statistics were enough to get her moving. Dr. Erin Kobetz was in her office at the University of Miami medical school, pouring over Florida medical data, when statistics from a certain neighborhood jumped out at her—the area, she noticed, had four times the state average of cervical cancer. When she looked more closely at the numbers, she realized she didn’t recognize the cross streets, not entirely surprising since she’d just recently returned after being away for 15 years, studying public health in Georgia and North Carolina. So “I got in my car and drove. And very quickly I realized I was in Little Haiti because of the number of signs written in Creole,” the 38-year-old Kobetz recalled. As someone who’d spent years devoted to making communities healthier, it came as a shock. “But I decided,” she said, “to use it as an opportunity to take action.”

And she did just that. A mother of three, Kobetz is the director of the Jay Weiss Institute at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine and founder of Partners in Action, a nonprofit that helps educate Little Haiti community members on the importance of preventive health care and getting regular screenings such as Pap smears as a means of lowering those numbers that shocked Kobetz into action. The group also connects women and men with little or no access to affordable healthcare to agencies that will help them. In the time since she launched the program, she herself suffered—and survived—a bout with thyroid cancer, something she says has helped her identify with the people she helps. A community-based medical success story, her program has since spread to Hialeah and West Perrine, both medically underserved communities as well. Here, Dr. Kobetz talks more about her own battle with cancer, the work she’s doing and why it should matter to all.

You were diagnosed with thyroid cancer shortly after starting Partners in Action. Yes, my cancer was an incredibly humbling experience and really sort of connected me to my own vulnerability as a human being. In letting community leaders know about my own struggle with cancer, I revealed a very intimate part of my experience. I think that basic sharing of my humanity connected us personally and allowed there to be mutual trust and respect. I wasn’t just another doctor in a white coat.

What were some cultural barriers Partners in Action encountered in the communities?In Hialeah, we would hear that issues of modesty often kept women from going to the doctor. Women really did not want to expose themselves to somebody who wasn’t their intimate partner. There was also a bias against having a male doctor because they felt as if their husband or partner would not want them to expose themselves to anyone but them. In Little Haiti, there were misperceptions about the speculum and what it could actually do anatomically speaking. Just entrenched misperceptions we had to deal with.

Is there a moment in your work that stands out as especially moving? One was very early on, when I sat in on a focus group that was being facilitated by a community health worker around the barriers to cancer prevention. There was a woman in the room and she raised her hand and mentioned she was a cancer survivor. Someone interrupted her and said, “Oh, give me a break, you never had cancer.” And she said, “I did!” And the other person said, “That’s a lie. If you had cancer you would have been dead by now.” That really struck a chord and made me realize how much misperception there is.

Why should this work matter outside of Little Haiti, Hialeah and West Perrine?In cities and societies characterized by tremendous disparity, where there are huge gaps in who’s healthy and who’s not, who has access to health care and who does not, even the people who are at the top of that food chain are less healthy than they could be. But I think more than that: I think, on some level, we are all connected to the idea that health is a human right.

What is your ultimate goal? I’ll consider myself worked out of a job when no woman in Little Haiti or Hialeah or West Perrine develops, let alone dies from, cervical cancer. I also think that I’ll consider it a success when we’ve been able to do this for another 10 years and that the work continues to extend beyond the boundaries of Little Haiti to other communities. But I guess until there’s no health disparity, I’m in it for the long haul.