Patient and Family Engagement Specialist Alma Martinez has worked at Texas Children’s for 29 years, but her advocacy for Spanish-speaking children and families in hospital settings spans a lifetime.
Her story began in Monterrey, Mexico in the mid-1980s, when her parents made the decision to immigrate to the United States for a better life. At that time, 3-year-old Alma, her younger sister and 6-month-old brother Juan were looking forward to welcoming a new sibling to their family.
But shortly after arriving in Houston and taking his very first steps, Juan contracted meningitis and went on to spend the rest of his first year of life receiving treatment at Ben Taub Hospital. Meanwhile, their mother delivered their second brother at Jefferson Davis Hospital and Martinez found herself becoming an advocate for the first time.
With Juan in a vegetable-like state and her parents unable to communicate effectively with his providers in English, she took on the role of an interpreter. When Juan and the new baby were released to go home at the same time, she took on the role of a caregiver for the two boys – one with special needs caused by Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) disease, as the family learned later.
“There weren’t a lot of Spanish-speaking people in this area seeking specialty care back then. People looked at us differently when it came to working with us and taking the time to understand our needs and answer our questions,” Martinez said. “Getting the care and attention Juan required was a struggle. It took extra patience and perseverance.”
Putting her life experience to work
By the time she was 21 years old, Martinez was working her way through school and looking for a job. She found one at Texas Children’s, starting her career in a staff support position in the Medical Staff Office. After eight years there, she wanted to do more and shift her focus to a different side of the organization. Then came an opportunity for her to put her self-taught advocacy skills to work.
Texas Children’s needed a bilingual employee to work with a child with special needs. Martinez became the first Patient Representative in the organization, acting as a part-time liaison between the patient’s family and the Family Advisory Board, which at the time was comprised of just a few parents with extensive experience.
“I wore many hats as interpreter and liaison to the advisory board while continuing to work in my staff support role,” she said.
Martinez went on to shape how the Patient Representative role and advisory board would evolve over the next few decades, and transitioned to full-time status after five more years of service. But when responsibilities and major events arose in her life – mothering three children, going through a divorce and going back to school – it prompted her to look for less demanding work. She transferred to the Emergency Center and took on a position as Family Advocate.
Growing her capacity to give families a voice
When Martinez returned to work as a Patient and Family Specialist in 2001, Texas Children’s had a full Patient and Family Services Department. Inviting parents to take a Driven by her own experience as an immigrant and advocate, Patient and Family Engagement Specialist Alma Martinez strives to give all patients and families a seat and a voice at the table 2seat at the table as part of the Family Advisory Board was still a new concept.
“But through the years we have accomplished so much in how we operate by elevating parents’ voices in whatever we do,” she said.
One of the most exciting accomplishments for Martinez involved the opening of the Lester and Sue Smith Legacy Tower, which was completed in 2018 to serve as the home of Texas Children’s Heart Center.
Twenty parents with experience in intensive care units were identified and engaged in the project from planning and development to build-out and post-construction, helping ensure it would be more than adequate for a growing patient population with more complex medical needs.
“While we continued to care and advocate for our current patients, the parents on our team advised it was critical to plan enough space in patient rooms for families to join the medical team at the patient’s bedside,” she said.
Today, Martinez is one of two Patient and Family Specialists who engages with 148 family advisors. The team continues to find ways to innovate, such as connecting with advisors virtually during the pandemic and expanding the group to include advisors based in Austin.
There are also plans to diversify the family advisor population by adding other bilingual capabilities, including Arabic and Vietnamese, she said.
“Just to see where we started and the big strides we’ve made is breathtaking,” Martinez said. “Now, leaders know about family advisors and expect to have one, allowing parents to come to the table throughout their hospital journey. It makes sense, leading to safer care … and parents are more compliant when you engage them and involve them.”
Looking back and forging ahead
Just as when she was a child, Martinez’s personal experiences continue to feed her passion for advocating for the best possible care for our patients and their families.
She still helps care for her brother, Juan, who now knows both English and Spanish, is in a wheelchair and doing well. She also has a nephew with SCID who was born in 1999, and she’s been able to help her sister care for him alongside two other children who are all under 3 years old.
“Unlike Juan, doctors were able to make a diagnosis early and my nephew received a bone marrow transplant in his first month and now he’s living a normal life,” Martinez said. “We also learned females in our family are the carriers of the disease, so that’s helpful to know as our family grows.”
As she reflects on her personal and professional journey and looks ahead to the future, Martinez knows she wants to continue making a difference for patients and families.
It often feels like her whole life has unfolded at Texas Children’s – and she can’t imagine it any other way.
“At the end of the day it’s good knowing I was helpful and had an impact on someone’s life,” she said. “This is my dream job.”