It doesn't take long after meeting Dr. Aliza Lifshitz--and seeing her smile warmly--to realize that she was born to be a physician.
Indeed, Lifshitz has spent the better part of two decades working to improve the health of Latinos in Los Angeles and across the country.
Many know her as "Doctora Aliza," the name she uses for her medical commentary heard throughout the U.S. and portions of Latin America on the Univision television and Radio Unica networks.
She also writes for La Opinion newspaper, but locally she's known primarily for her grass-roots work, including volunteering at weekend health fairs and representing the interests of Latino patients with virtually every professional medical organization in the area.
"She has obtained probably the highest professional recognition of any Hispanic doctor in the United States," says Victor Blanco, president of Physician Care Management Co., who has worked alongside Lifshitz at health fairs. "Her involvement has transcended medicine. She's a powerhouse in the community."
Now, the Cedars-Sinai internist has written "Mama Sana, Bebe Sano--Healthy Mother, Healthy Baby"--a first-of-its-kind bilingual book for expectant mothers. In the past, such books were available only in translation and often weren't culturally sensitive to immigrant women or even their U.S.-born daughters.
"Some people ask me: 'Do Latinas have babies differently?' " says Lifshitz, 46. "They have babies the same way, but some of the things that we think because of our culture can make things different. For one, Latina women generally don't seek health care as early as they should."
The book is particularly relevant, she says, because the country's 30 million Latinos are expected to account for 3.3 million births, or almost one of every five, from 1997 to 2001.
Lifshitz's national book tour will begin in Los Angeles this week in conjunction with the kickoff of her new show on Radio Unica, heard locally at 3 p.m. Saturdays on KLBA-AM (1580) and KVCA-AM (670).
She will broadcast live from a book-signing from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Wal-Mart in Panorama City, 8333 Van Nuys Blvd. Other book-signings will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble in Burbank, 731 N. San Fernando Blvd., and from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Wal-Mart in city of Industry, 17150 Gale Ave.
In addition to her medical work in the Latino community, Lifshitz has been a pioneer in championing Latino and woman doctors, colleagues say.
"I have known her to raise in one year $100,000," says Maritza Mendizabal, a former member of the California Hispanic Medical Assn., which Lifshitz led as president for four terms.
She has been recognized by many organizations and groups over the years, but she says that one of the most meaningful came when she was doing HIV work in the 1980s.
Dr. German Maisonete--virtually the only other physician in Los Angeles working with Latino HIV patients--was moving to Northern California. He asked Lifshitz if he could refer his patients to her.
"He thought I would take care of them," she remembers. "That's something that I really treasure."
As a teenager in Mexico City during the late 1960s, she told her parents that she wanted to be a doctor.
Latinas didn't go to medical school back then, Lifshitz says. But she insisted, inspired in part because her mother also had dreamed of being a doctor.
Lifshitz's father, Gregorio, left Russia with his family in 1928. The ship was supposed to anchor in New York City, but the U.S. visa quota was filled. So the ship sailed on to Veracruz, Mexico, where he became an engineer.
Lifshitz's mother, Marilyn, was born in New York, where her parents had come as Jewish immigrants. Her father's business interests took the family to Mexico when she was 3.
After Lifshitz finished medical school at Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, she came to the United States to study at Tulane University in New Orleans and at UC San Diego.
Lifshitz and her husband live in West Los Angeles, not far from her Cedars office. There's hardly any free time as she juggles private practice, media work and volunteer duties with medical organizations ranging from the American Medical Assn. to Blue Shield of California. But she likes to dance and listen to all kinds of music, particularly classical, which she learned to love in Mexico.
Lifshitz made her television debut here in 1986 when KSCI-TV needed a Spanish-speaking physician for a program. The station dropped its Spanish-language shows later, but Lifshitz was offered a national show with Univision, where she has appeared since 1988.
She immediately fell in love with media work because it allowed her to be a doctor to millions of needy, many of them immigrants.
"I was spending my weekends answering letters because they were so moving," she remembers. "Some of them needed basic information most of us take for granted."
Some of her listeners are middle-class Latinos who just prefer Spanish-language media, but there also are those on the fringes of society, lonely and desperate for medical care, she says. Some are afraid to go to a hospital emergency room, fearing deportation.
"People don't realize there's a lot of suffering out there," she says.
Some in the community appreciate Lifshitz's efforts to give information that is tailored to the Spanish-speaking community.
"If we're talking about asthma, she will call and find out when the asthma camp is," says Mendizabal, former chairwoman of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation. "Personally I know she takes the time to call organizations to give the proper information to our community."
Throughout her career, Lifshitz says, her most satisfying work has been with those who need help most--often Latinos like herself.
"I've always felt very Mexican, very Latina," she says.
Jose Cardenas can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.