Puerto Rican Doctor Moves Back to Give Back

Radiologist Dr. Yania López Álvarez (center) reviews patient cases with residents Amanda Marrero González and Manuel Betancourt Robles at the Medical Center of Puerto Rico in San Juan, P.R., on May 10, 2018. Dr. López, Director of the Imaging Center of the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, returned to her homeland last year to work with the island’s population, leaving behind generous job offers on the mainland. Doctors who work in Puerto Rico must do more with less, with budget restrictions and infrastructure still in disrepair from Hurricane Maria. Direct Relief has purchased 3D mammography equipment so that Dr. López and her colleagues can conduct contrast-enhanced spectral mammography at the center. The equipment is expected to be operational by October 2018. (Photo by Erika P. Rodriguez for Direct Relief)


Radiologist Dr. Yania López Álvarez views her medical vocation not only as a job but as a rewarding way to serve her home of Puerto Rico.

The 35-year-old doctor moved back to the island 10 months ago, forgoing job offers that would have doubled her current salary.

“Job offers in the U.S. are very attractive, but I knew that I wanted to come back,” said Dr. López, who works as Director of the Imaging Center of the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico and assistant professor at the UPR School of Medicine.

At the time she moved back to the island, the public health system of Puerto Rico didn’t have a program for her to apply her expertise in breast imaging, which she had practiced at the Mayo Clinic. But Dr. López was determined to find ways to help.

The UPR School of Medicine is preparing to open Puerto Rico’s first breast imaging center, thanks to a donation provided by Direct Relief.

Dr. López dictates notes while examining patient scans. Improved equipment will allow patients to have access to the latest technology. (Photo by Erika P. Rodriguez for Direct Relief)

The donation funded the purchase of contrast-enhanced digital mammography technology to the center. Direct Relief is also replacing the hospital’s colonoscopy and laryngoscopy equipment that was damaged during Hurricane Maria, when voltage fluctuations made the equipment unusable.

About two-thirds of the patients served at the University Hospital lack insurance, have incomes below the poverty line, and are medically underserved. The imaging center sees between 250 to 300 patients monthly.

The newly equipped space will allow Dr. López to care for patients on the island who otherwise would lack access to the help they need.

“Women aren’t the only ones at risk of developing breast cancer; men are too, and there’s another population on the island that’s terribly neglected: the trans community. Men who are sexually transitioning are consuming hormones that predispose them to cancer, and women who are transitioning are at risk as well if they haven’t had their mastectomy. These are patients who face many obstacles to receiving screening tests,” she said.

The Imaging Center at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine in San Juan. (Photo by Erika P. Rodriguez for Direct Relief)

The machines are expected to be installed by October 2018.

“Having the best technology in the best place makes the sacrifices worth it because you know that you’re making difference,” said Dr. López, who sometimes works 24-hour shifts.

“Doctors in Puerto Rico work more. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. We have to meet standards with less staff. We cover administrative needs that would typically be handled by specialists… Which in Puerto Rico, don’t exist,” she said.  The doctor acknowledged that these tasks are time-consuming efforts that extend her work shifts and prevent her from seeing more patients.

Despite this, she looks to the future with a strong desire to serve. As she waits for the radiology center to begin operating, she’s focused on supervising medical residents and seeks new ways to reach underserved patients on the island.

Dr. López in the room where the new mammography machine will be installed. (Photo by Erika P. Rodriguez for Direct Relief)

“I obtained all my college education at the University of Puerto Rico, and I think that, if it’s possible, one has to give back. It’s a way to help future generations have the same opportunities that I had,” she said.

 – Alejandra Rosa Morales is a journalist based in Puerto Rico.

Since Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean, Direct Relief has provided over $66.6 million in medical assistance to 61 nonprofit health centers, public health facilities, hospitals, emergency medical teams, and local nonprofit organizations in Puerto Rico. Direct Relief has also invested $2.1 million in solar projects, equipment procurement, vaccination campaigns, and expand emergency operations at health centers and clinics across the island.

Further Reading

A Puerto Rico Community Powers Its Future

Six Months After Hurricane Maria, Recovery Continues in Puerto Rico