Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, a nationally recognized health care advocate, died Thursday in her Santa Cruz County home from complications associated with lung cancer. She was 72.
A pediatrician with an expertise in maternal and family health, Rodriguez-Trias was the first Latina president of the American Public Health Assn., the world’s oldest and largest organization of public health professionals. In January, she was awarded a Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Clinton for her work on behalf of women, children, AIDS patients and the poor.
Rodriguez-Trias was born in Puerto Rico and received her degree from the University of Puerto Rico Medical School in 1960, the same year her fourth child was born. During her residency at the university hospital, she created the island’s first center for neonatal care. She moved to New York City in 1970, where she taught in several medical schools, including those at Yeshiva and Columbia universities.
She became an outspoken leader in the women’s health movement, serving on the boards of the National Women’s Health Network and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. She worked closely with the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and helped draft what became the federal guidelines regarding sterilization.
“She was a wonderful, sensitive pediatrician who worked tirelessly with poor children,” said Judy Norsigian of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. “But she was also an astute policy person. She understood what was needed and was able to reach all sorts of people. Just a wonderful advocate.”
As medical director of the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute in 1988, she helped develop programs directed at families affected by HIV, and continued similar work after moving to California in 1989.
In 1992, she was elected president of the American Public Health Assn., where she helped and served for three years. The organization is creating an award in her name.
“She will be missed, but long remembered for her many contributions, especially to maternal and child health,” said Dr. Maxine Hayes, the chair of the organization’s programs in those areas. “She was such an advocate for women, particularly minority women.”
In 1996, she helped found the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to improving women’s health and well-being. She also worked as a consultant for the International Health Programs Public Health Institute where her focus was improving family planning and health care in South and Central America.
“She didn’t seem like a radical,” said James Williams, deputy director of the institute, “this middle-aged lady, conservatively dressed with a lovely smile. But she certainly was a radical in her desire for change and her ability to push for it.”
Her most recent work for the organization involved identifying and enlisting local leaders for reproductive health programs in countries including El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, Williams said, and ensuring that underserved populations, especially rural Indians, were not forgotten. “She wanted to cause sustainable change within these countries,” he said. “She was completely dedicated to making these things happen.”
“For many of us, she was a mentor,” said Norsigian. “She was brilliant and loving and never gave up the fight. She left an enormous legacy.”
She is survived by her husband, Edward Gonzalez Jr.; her four children, Jo Ellen Brainin-Rodriguez, Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, David Brainin-Rodriguez and Daniel Curet-Rodriguez; and her seven grandchildren.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers a donation be made to the Hospice Caring Project, 6851 Soquel Drive, Aptos, CA 95003, or a children’s charity of choice.