Lying in bed, her voice hushed to a whisper, Altagracia Gautier could manage only a few words at a time.

“Sometimes I forget to eat,” the 74-year-old woman, who has Parkinson’s disease, told the Florida International University medical student hovering by the bed in her Miami Gardens home. “I feel weak. My whole body shakes, and sometimes I can’t get out of bed by myself. I’m not getting better.”

The third-year student, Victor Becerra, calmly discussed Gautier’s symptoms, especially her tendency to become dizzy when standing. He smiled as he spoke and she appeared to relax under his scrutiny.

Becerra, 25, and two fellow FIU students — Romell McLeod and Matthew Tutterow, both working toward bachelor’s degrees in social work — were performing home visits on a recent afternoon as part of the university’s NeighborhoodHELP program, which provides medical care and assistance with legal issues and other matters to low-income residents of several communities, including Opa-locka, Hialeah, Miami Lakes, Little Haiti and North Miami.


Launched four years ago, the program targets neighborhoods where surveys have shown a high incidence of infant mortality, cardiovascular problems, cancer and other afflictions. The students’ visits, supervised by FIU faculty members, are free. The service is particularly valuable for those people who remain ineligible for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act but who also cannot qualify for Medicaid because of Florida’s decision not to expand the program to those making up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

Residents of about 400 households, most of them identified with the help of community organizations, churches and schools, are now enrolled in the FIU program and receive care from its students. Developing such hands-on skills is “an incredible experience” for the students and a crucial part of their education, Dr. John Rock, dean of FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, said during a recent meeting with Miami Herald editors and reporters.

“The entire household has to be considered,” Rock said, a reference to the program’s attempt to address every ailment that might afflict people living under a single roof. He noted that since the program’s inception, emergency-room visits by people it had treated were down by 60 percent.

The visit to Gautier’s house was the third for Becerra since July, when he responded to a request from the woman’s 42-year-old daughter, Vilma, for help with weight issues and proper nutrition. During that first visit, Becerra learned of the older woman’s struggle with Parkinson’s, and embarked on a program of care for her, too.

This visit to the house, where the family has lived for more than 40 years, was focused mostly on assessing the progression of the mother’s illness and of figuring out how to keep her comfortable and well fed. Vilma Gautier, who has no health insurance but whose mother is covered by Medicare, explained that she was having difficulty juggling the care of her increasingly delicate mother with the demands of a full-time job in a cargo company at Miami International Airport.

“I have to take off work to take her to the doctor,” she said, “and then make sure she’s settled and go back to work. Everything falls on me.”

Listening intently from the living-room couch was Dr. Annellys Hernandez, the FIU faculty member supervising the visit. She had not previously met the Gautiers. “What I’m hearing is that home service is going to be better for you,” Hernandez said, suggesting more frequent visits by the team.

Gautier said she usually leaves the house at 7 a.m. to take her 15-year-old son, Kelvin Stanley, to school, and then goes to work, leaving her mother by herself for most of the day, with only the dog, Fancy, for company.

“When she’s alone and she’s walking around, what if she suddenly feels dizzy?” Gautier pondered. “That’s what scares me.”


Tutterow, one of the student social workers, suggested that the older woman — whose dizziness was ascribed to sudden drops in blood pressure when standing — be equipped with a Life Alert device so that she could summon help if she falls. Tutterow said he would find out whether it might be covered by her Medicare plan. “That’s something we’ll definitely write down and look into,” he promised.

Hernandez and the three students also determined that Altagracia Gautier would benefit from having Meals on Wheels deliver lunch to her.

Tutterow and the other social-work student, McLeod, said during a break that they always ask patients whether they have health insurance, but many do not.

“We didn’t get Medicaid expansion and we’re seeing the results of that on a daily basis,” Tutterow said. “In our roles we can see it on a community level — the lack of insurance and the difficulties people have in navigating the system. So we empower them to get care and make positive changes in their lives.”

Students in the program are assigned two households, each of which gets about four visits a year. Most teams include students in medicine, nursing and social work, plus a faculty member who might oversee 30 or 40 households. Law students are brought into the mix whenever legal barriers to healthcare arise, such as undocumented immigration status or problems with eligibility, housing or transportation.

In one current case, Hernandez said, a law student was being consulted about legal options for a mother of three children, the youngest just 2 months old, who is receiving no financial help from the children’s father since he left their home.

Team members will even help children with problems in school. During the visit to the Gautiers’ house, McLeod asked the teenager, Kelvin, about issues he was having in class, especially in biology. McLeod said he might be able to suggest a tutor for him.

The NeighborhoodHELP program is being funded largely by the Green Family Foundation, which was established in 1991 by a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, Steven J. Green, and is dedicated to supporting social programs that address health and alleviate poverty, according to its website.

In many respects, the program addresses the question of “how a medical school can be integrated into a community,” said Rock, the dean. Team members refer patients for medical screenings for cervical and prostate cancers, mammograms, colonoscopies and other tests. Proper nutrition, he added, is paramount.

“If we can teach one person in a family how to eat properly,” he said, “we can prevent a disease.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.


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Lizbet Martínez, the Cuban rafter girl who warmed the hearts of U.S. Coast Guard officers and many others across the nation 20 years ago with her rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, still has the violin that made her famous.

Martínez, then 12 years old, became the endearing face of a successful campaign to bring other children out of Guantánamo refugee camps and into “the land of the brave and home of the free.”

She was among more than 30,000 Cubans rescued in the Florida Straits during a one-month summer exodus from Cuba that became known as the rafter, or balsero, crisis.

Today, she’s a Florida International University graduate with a music degree, teaches preschool children in Hialeah and is raising two kids of her own as a working mom.

But it was the events of two decades ago that made her a part of South Florida history.

Martínez, who traveled on a makeshift raft with her parents and 10 others, became so famous that she was invited to Tallahassee to play before then-President Bill Clinton, and was honored by Florida lawmakers who declared March 29, 1995, as “Lizbet Martínez Day.”

During her encounter with Clinton, Martínez handed the president a ceramic angel and a postcard asking him to “open his heart” and help the Cuban children who were then still in camps in Guantánamo and Panama. In return, she received Clinton’s promise that the children would be “relocated in the very near future.”

Indeed, the last of the Cuban balseros left the refugee camps in May 1995. Most ultimately made it to the United States under a new immigration accord that put an end to the mass exodus and required that most of those interdicted at sea be returned to Cuba to apply for a visa at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Known as the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, those who set foot on U.S. land were allowed to remain in the country.

“When I left Guantánamo [five months after being intercepted at sea], there were still many children there because the first who were able to leave were those with medical problems,” said Martínez, now a teacher at a preschool in Hialeah. “And that was my plea to Clinton.

“In Guantánamo, we received an identification band that looked like a watch, and I told him I would not take it off until the last person was out,” Martínez said. “And I kept my promise. When the last lady got off the plane, she cut it off, a year later.”

What she remembers most from her departure by sea was “the uncertainty of not knowing if we were going to be rescued. We were so eager to leave Cuba behind, but once you find yourself alone at sea, that’s when you begin to really pray to God. Thank God, we were rescued at 4 in the morning.”

Before the family left Cuba, Martínez was studying violin at the Alejandro García Caturla conservatory in Havana. She learned how to play The Star-Spangled Banner, thinking it was a religious hymn, until her uncle, who is Major League Baseball fan, warned her about the song’s significance.

“When we were rescued, they wanted to throw all the contents from the raft and they wanted to throw out my violin,” Martínez said. “They did not know Spanish, and we did not speak English, but I figured they would know the American national anthem. So that’s when I got my violin and began to play it. They were super-impressed.”

“The captain was so moved that he transmitted what she was playing over the radio to all the other cutters in the area,” Martínez’s father, Jorge Martinez, said in 2003, when the violinist graduated with a music degree from Florida International University.

Upon her arrival to the United States, Martínez recalls the many Cuban exile activities she took part in and a community that treated her with “great affection.” Among the many people who reached out was Cuban-American singer Willy Chirino, who gave her a $3,000 scholarship to help pay for college.

Now settled into her new life in America, Martínez hesitates when asked whether she would put her two children on a raft to an uncertain future.

“Back then, we were told that the U.S. Coast Guard was 12 miles off the Cuban coast,” Martínez said. “They were well past the 12 miles, but luckily nothing happened to us. Thank God, I am not in the position of having to make that decision, because it is a very difficult one. But I am very grateful to my parents, who left their own parents behind, so that I could live in freedom.”

While the little Cuban violist received much acclaim and made headlines all over the world, her story is not known in Cuba. The government-controlled media never published a word.

Over the past two decades, she has returned several times to visit family members still on the island.

“One yearns to return because it your homeland, because you miss your family so much,” Martínez said. “And then, when you arrive, when the plane lands and you get off and say to yourself, ‘I’m standing in Cuba again,’ that, for me, is a miracle. Even though it has the problems it has, it is the country where you were born, it’s your culture. I know there are many people who think one should not go, but I still have my family there.”

At FIU, Martínez earned a degree as a violin soloist, but no longer performs for large audiences. She also has stopped teaching music due to cuts in school programs. But she continues to play at her church and at small events such as weddings, adding that in today’s economic climate there is more demand for DJs than for a string quartet.

“I can play in front of thousands of people, but during auditions in front of a panel of judges, my nerves betray me,” Martínez said with a chuckle, adding that beyond nerves the opportunities for those who play classical music are limited.

Among her favorites is the music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and although she rarely plays such complex pieces she enjoys the music in her preschool classes. “I like the reaction people have to the music,” she said.

Martínez keeps the violin she brought from Cuba preserved at home as part of her history.

“In fact, it started to come apart because of the salt during the trip on the raft. But a priest in Guantánamo gave us glue and we were able to fix it,” she said as she picked up another violin. “I have never been ashamed to say that I came on a raft and I am proud to be a balsera, truly.”

With that, she began to play a popular Cuban melody: the danzonete.

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There’s little argument that the education future is built around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math); however, a recent study revealed 38 percent of students who start with a STEM major do not graduate with one.

SEE ALSO: Latinos wanted: push for Hispanics in STEM fields

One school hoping to change that trend is Florida International University (FIU), which is increasing STEM awareness for all students, especially minorities.

Florida International University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor and Chair Dr. Shekhar Bhansali told VOXXI, “We’re in an era and an age where you can’t do without STEM. Not just FIU but for everybody, STEM is important and it’s going to get more and more important.

“It doesn’t matter what you do. Everything we do has STEM support behind it. It’s not going away.”

FIU paves the way for Latino tech entrepreneurs

The Miami-based FIU is currently mounting an effort to establish a new generation of tech entrepreneurs, especially among Latino students where there currently exists a considerable gap for STEM education.

The National Science Foundation shows that less than 13 percent of underrepresented minorities are earning degrees in physical sciences and engineering, compared to 18.6 percent of total undergraduate degrees.

That’s why the Florida Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (FGLSAMP) has created a Bridge to the Doctorate site at FIU, to increase the number of graduates who not only obtain STEM doctoral degrees, but also successfully transition them into post-graduate careers in industry, government or academia.

“What the program does is every year it gives an alliance one cohort of up to 19 students,” Bhansali said. “The idea is you recruit students who qualify to be a part of the school who also happen to be minority students. These students who just came out of a bachelor’s degree are funded for the first two years, with the goal to take them up to end of doctorate degree.”

The reason for the program is basically there are plenty of hurdles facing the STEM student issue.Oftentimes the biggest of which involves students not fully understanding the benefits or opportunities of a PhD.

Also tied to this issue is the fact some students believe a PhD is only beneficial if they are pre-med or pre-law.

“Very few realize you can have an equally good quality of life doing things you like and not in medicine or law,” Bhansali said. “A lot of it has to do with awareness.”

Another hurdle that speaks directly to the Latino community is responsibility. Bhansali said many students with bachelor’s degrees are faced with the dilemma of taking care of their family versus pursuing higher education.

“These are hard choices, so we spend a lot of time counseling people,” Bhansali said. “The first thing we did in [Bridge to the Doctorate] is have a stipend of about $30,000 a year. It’s not like a fulltime job, but it’s also not bare bones either. So it’s like a halfway compromise that you can at least have a life and works towards a degree.”

The stipend is also attracting students who were in the workforce but due to a lack of credentials experienced a glass ceiling.

“What students often don’t realize is with a PhD your life changes,” Bhansali said. “Your starting salary goes from $50,000 to $120,000. It completely transforms the career and the influence you have with people and organizations. That’s what we’re trying to articulate and excite students on is the possibility just beyond them just getting a degree.

“The impact is far more than a student just getting another degree. An incredible transformation starts here.”

SEE ALSO: Fernando Fiore to students: STEM is the way to go


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Un equipo de investigadores de la Florida International University, ha desarrollado una banda que medirá los niveles de cortisol para ayudar a controlar los niveles de estrés.

La Florida International Universtiy (FIU) está desarrollando una investigación para que a través de un biochip desechable, el usuario provea una gota de saliva y en tan  solo 15 minutos a través de una pantalla refleje los niveles de cortisol en tiempo real, lo que permitirá tratar el estrés crónico de manera eficaz.

Esta alternativa sin duda beneficiaría a millones de personas que experimentan episodios de pánico o que ven mermada su calidad de vida debido a esta enfermedad que ha aumentado en un 30% en los últimos años sólo en los Estados Unidos. entrevistó en exclusiva al Dr. Shekhar Bhansali,  investigador principal de este proyecto que estudia los comportamientos que pueden ser manifestados por un desequilibrio químico, es importante resaltar que anteriormente no existía un diagnóstico o una prueba para identificar las condiciones subyacentes provenientes del estrés.

“Hemos estado investigando este trastorno desde hace varios años. Los miembros actuales de nuestro equipo son dos becarios posdoctorales, 3 estudiantes doctorales y habrá un nuevo equipo de estudiantes de pregrado que estarán trabajando en el proyecto para qué la banda sea una realidad al alcance de todos” afirmó el Dr. Bhansali.

Agregó el especialista, que él y su equipo están enfocados en perfeccionar la banda en beneficio de las personas que por algún desorden emocional sufren de altos niveles de estrés.

Kelly Mesa, estudiante de doctorado, quien es una de las investigadoras de la FIU, junto al Dr. Bhansali, y a Alison Tanner, nos explicaron las razones por las cuales se está llevando a cabo esta investigación en que la ella funge como Líder Empresarial.

“Los militares cuando  vuelven de las misiones en Irak, Afganistán o cualquier otro país en guerra a donde hayan sido enviados, por lo general sufren de PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), de allí surge la necesidad de desarrollar una tecnología que los pueda ayudar a reportar sus niveles de estrés para así prevenir este tipo de episodios” aseguró Mesa.

Mesa explica, que detectar los niveles de cortisol permite a su vez en algunos casos controlar el peso y los niveles de testosterona que de no encontrarse en valores normales  pueden producir desordenes hormonales tanto en hombres como en mujeres.

Los pacientes que padezcan de estrés crónico que deseen crear un sistema de entrenamiento óptimo también serán beneficiados con esta tecnología. El Dr. Bhansali agregó que en vista de que esta es una investigación continua aun no tiene fecha de culminación pero estima que podría tardar de 2 a 4 años para que la banda sea comercializada.

Este proyecto que ha sido desarrollado en la FIU, una casa de estudios e investigación que cuenta con la infraestructura necesaria para desarrollar este tipo trabajos que son llevados a cabo con la nanotecnología, sin duda representa un avance para la ciencia y un beneficio para quienes padecen de estrés y de las enfermedades que derivan de este trastorno.

Estos avances cientìficos y tecnológicos sin duda son Marca Miami.


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FIU students offer care to those in need

Lying in bed, her voice hushed to a whisper, Altagracia Gautier could manage only a few words at a time. “Sometimes I forget to eat,” the 74-year-old woman, who has Parkinson’s dise...

Read more >

Young Cuban rafter who played Star-Spangled Banner on boat is now a mom and teacher in Hialeah

Lizbet Martínez, the Cuban rafter girl who warmed the hearts of U.S. Coast Guard officers and many others across the nation 20 years ago with her rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, still has ...

Read more >

The ABCs of higher education are changing; will Latino students keep up?

There’s little argument that the education future is built around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math); however, a recent study revealed 38 percent of students who start with a STEM major d...

Read more >