‘Your voices are important’: Worcester Health Commissioner Inspires Students to Drive ChangeBy Jennifer Persons
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Dr. Matilde ‘Mattie’ Castiel empowered students to use their knowledge and passions to enact meaningful change in their communities.
In medical school at the University of California—San Francisco, one of Dr. Matilde Castiel’s professors said he couldn’t pronounce her first name, so he called her “Mattie” instead. While the nickname stuck, the story is one of many she shared to illustrate how growing up as Cuban American influences and inspires her work today.
Castiel, MD, gave a powerful presentation to students, faculty, and staff at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) in Worcester in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Dr. Castiel is Worcester’s Commissioner for Health and Human Services and has worked as a physician in the community for more than 30 years. She is on a lifelong mission to eliminate healthcare inequities for the Latino community and other communities of color.
“Each and every one of you has the power to create change,” Dr. Castiel said. “Your voices are incredibly important. Whatever job you choose to do, treat everyone with dignity and compassion.”
Dr. Castiel began by sharing her life story, which has shaped who she is as a person and a medical professional. She was born in Camaguey, Cuba, and came to the United States with her brother when she was 7 years old. Their parents eventually joined them, and the family settled near Los Angeles, California.
Growing up, Dr. Castiel and her family fought against every stereotype and bias imaginable. She assumed the role of translator for her parents, who didn’t speak English. Her whole life, she watched people speak out against Latino community members moving into their neighborhoods. She even felt uncomfortable or as if she wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish.
“I did often feel like I was less than everybody else, but the reality is if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here in the position that I’m in, fighting for the things I believe in,” she said.
Dr. Castiel moved to Massachusetts after finishing her residency and began putting down roots in her family life and career.
“I saw addiction as a problem in our community, but we weren’t taught about it in medical school,” she explained. “We say addiction is a disease, but we don’t treat it as that. It became my passion and calling to help those in the Latino community suffering from addiction.”
In 2009, Dr. Castiel founded the Latin American Health Alliance (LAHA) to combat homelessness and drug addiction within the Latino community. The organization opened the Hector Reyes house treatment center and two transitional houses, Casa Reyes and Casa Mattie.
“I wanted to make sure people had a place with dignity that they could go to and feel at home when they got out of prison,” she said.
But Dr. Castiel noticed it wasn’t enough to provide treatment or a place to live. Many of the residents also needed help finding a job to support themselves. In 2015, the organization opened Café Reyes, where all the employees are in recovery, and most are graduates of LAHA programs.
“I had no business experience when we set out to open the homes and café,” Dr. Castiel said. “It was sheer desire to help my community that made this happen. I hope you find something in your life that brings you that kind of passion.”
During the pandemic, Dr. Castiel went out into underserved communities to administer COVID-19 shots wherever people were, at the grocery store, sitting in their cars, or walking down the street.
“It’s not that people didn’t want the vaccine, but they didn’t know about it and wanted to hear about it, sometimes in their language,” she said.
The crowd was immediately inspired by Dr. Castiel’s story. Many people spoke with her after her presentation looking for opportunities to volunteer and be advocates promoting health equity for the Hispanic and other underrepresented communities.
Dr. Castiel has made great strides in reducing healthcare inequities, through her work with LAHA, the city of Worcester, and more. But she reminded students that there is far more work to be done, and they must see it through.
“I hope you all work together to figure out how we can change the inequities in healthcare,” Dr. Castiel said. “And don’t forget, communities of color need to be a part of the process.”
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