Helen Rodriguez-Trias (1929-2001) was doctor, women’s right’s advocate and health educator. Born in New York in 1929 to Puerto Rican parents, Helen Rodriguez-Trias was motivated, early-on in life to help others. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in 1957, where she was a student advocate and member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Inspired by her desire to “combine the things [she] loved the most, science and people” Helen Rodriguez-Trias returned to the University of Puerto Rico, where she earned her medical degree just a short time before giving birth to her fourth child in 1960. During her residency at the University Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Helen Rodriguez-Trias established the first center for the care of newborn babies. Within three years of the center’s establishment, the hospital experienced a 50% decrease in newborn deaths.
In 1970 Helen Rodriguez-Trias divorced her husband and returned to New York City, where she worked as a pediatrician at Lincoln Hospital, located in the South Bronx. During her residency in Puerto Rico Helen Rodriguez-Trias became aware that Puerto Rican women were being involuntarily sterilized and were being used as test-subjects for early birth-control pills, and later utilized role as a pediatrician in New York City to become a pioneering advocate against the forced sterilization of women within Puerto Rico and the mainland, United States. Helen Rodriguez-Trias became the founding member of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse in 1970, a founding member of the Women’s Caucus of the America Public Health Association in 1971, and a founding member of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse in 1979. She testified before the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, advocating for guidelines that required written consent for sterilization, in a language that the patient can understand, and the implementation of a waiting period between consent and the sterilization procedure.
In 1993 Helen Rodriguez-Trias became the first Latina to be elected president of the America Public Health Association, and in 2001 received the Presidential Citizen’s Medal—the second highest civilian award in the United States— for her work on behalf of women, children, and the less privileged.
Inspired by the experiences of her mother, aunts and sisters, Helen Rodriguez-Trias became an effective advocate and educator, affecting tangible change in healthcare options and education for women of color, patients living with HIV/AIDS and families living in poverty. After a lifetime of working to provide a wide-variety of people with healthcare and health education, Helen Rodriguez-Trias passed away in December 2001, due to complications from cancer.
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