Editor’s note: The Women in Surgery Committee of the American College of Surgeons hosted a session at Clinical Congress 2021 on Breaking Barriers: Minority Women Pioneers in Surgery. The Bulletin is pleased to publish a two-part series of the presentations given during this program. In this first installment, the authors chronicle the achievements of Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, a Navajo Tribe surgeon, and Dr. Sylvia M. Ramos Cruz, a Puerto Rican surgeon.
Sylvia M. Ramos Cruz, MD, MS, FACS, was born in Río Piedras, PR, and lived there with her parents and three sisters until she was 8 years old. When her father moved to the US mainland to look for work, her family moved to the town of Isabela, where she was educated in a two-room schoolhouse. When she was 12 years old, the family moved to the Bronx, NY. This new world was so unlike her little island. Everything was different—people, language, landscape, architecture, even the weather.
Her path toward medicine began with a high school aptitude test. She scored high in math, science, and English. She went to the library to look up careers in math and science and found a profession where she could be a leader and a helper. She set her sights on becoming a physician, even though she did not know what that entailed. In fact, she didn’t know any physicians, male or female, who could offer guidance. Even her college advisor did not support her goal of pursuing a degree in medicine. Dr. Ramos Cruz did not listen.
Her parents encouraged higher education and were supportive but could provide no financial assistance for her studies. She financed her education and general surgery training with scholarships, grants, and loans, and completed both at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECOM), Bronx, NY. After residency, she stayed on the faculty because she wanted to serve the people in the Bronx who had allowed her to practice on and learn from them, and because it was, and still is, a medically underserved area.
Advocate for Diversity
Dr. Ramos Cruz participated in the advanced management program for clinicians at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, receiving a master of science in health services management. She also became founding director of the first office of diversity enhancement at Einstein’s office of special educational programs, where she championed the needs of underrepresented minorities and other nontraditional students and assisted in the recruitment of underrepresented students to the school.
Throughout that time, aside from treating surgical patients and teaching, she directed a surgical nutrition program at Montefiore Medical Center, mentored women surgery residents, and published articles in medical journals. Among these articles was a study of women surgeons, which highlighted some of the difficulties and inequities they faced in the late 1980s. Some of these challenges remain, including limited career advancement opportunities and lower income compared to male surgeons with the same degree of experience and seniority.
After 12 years as a member of the faculty at Einstein—where she became associate professor of surgery in 1986 and was the Milton J. Petrie Fellow in Surgery from 1987 to 1990—Dr. Ramos Cruz decided she wanted a change. She had visited New Mexico in 1985 and was enchanted by the slower pace of life, the desert, the craggy western landscape, and the centuries-old integration of Hispanics into the fabric of the state.
In 1990, she moved to Albuquerque and opened a private practice in general surgery, eventually limiting her work to patients with breast diseases and lymphedema. She continued to participate in organizations such as the National Hispanic Medical Association, which advocated for healthcare for underrepresented groups. She also served on the admissions committee at the University of New Mexico Medical School. She retired from practice in 2016.
Poetry and Prose
Dr. Ramos Cruz has always enjoyed writing and began taking poetry classes in 2002. As her creative interests developed, she decided to add Cruz (her mother’s last name) to Ramos (her father’s last name) to honor her mother, who was the creative spirit in the family. By using her full name, Sylvia Ramos Cruz, she acknowledged the traditional way children’s surnames denote family connections in Spanish-speaking cultures.
Over the years, she has written poetry, prose, and essays. Her written works and photographs have received numerous awards. In 2010, her poem “Read Me” was featured in the Albuquerque Main Public Library and placed on the side of buses throughout the city. “Trilogy on Price, Value, Worth: At Seventy I See Myself, Words Have Weight, Priceless Possessions” won first prize in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2021 Communications Contest. Her work has been published in many anthologies, including Artemis 2021, the Journal of Latina Critical Feminism, Poetrybay, and Southwestern American Literature Journal.
In 2012, Sylvia Ramos Cruz took on the role of advocate and activist after watching the US congressional hearings on reproductive health and birth control at which only men testified.
In 2012, Dr. Ramos Cruz took on the role of advocate and activist after watching the US congressional hearings on reproductive health and birth control at which only men testified. Since then, she has worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, organizing rallies, speaking in public forums, and educating the public and legislators about the need for women’s rights to be included explicitly in the US Constitution. Another area of advocacy for Dr. Ramos has been to research the significant work done over 46 years by New Mexico women to ratify the 19th Amendment. She continues to work to ensure that women’s work in all spheres of endeavor is seen and valued.
Throughout her career, Dr. Ramos Cruz has received many awards and honors. Among them are plaques from public school children in the Bronx for speaking at their career days, the People’s Caring Award from cancer patients in New Mexico, the Distinguished Member Award from the Association of Women Surgeons, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alumni Association of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She said she is honored and humbled by their recognition.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Hispanic Heritage Month. Alumni Spotlight. Available at: https://einsteinmed.edu/diversity/hispanic-heritage-month/. Accessed December 27, 2021.
Ramos SM. Suffrage in the southwest: The Albuquerque Woman’s Club. In Her Own Right: A Century of Women’s Activism, 1820–1920. (Database). Available at: http://inherownright.org/spotlight/featured-exhibits/feature/suffrage-in-the-southwest-the-albuquerque-woman-s-club. Accessed December 27, 2021.
Ramos SM, Feiner CJ. Women surgeons: A national survey. J Am Med Womens Assoc. 1989;44(1):21-25.
National Federation of Press Women. National Communication’s Contest Winners. Sylvia Ramos Cruz, New Mexico—1st Place, Creative Verse, Single poem. June 12, 2021. Available at: https://www.nfpw.org/2021-sweepstakes-contest-winners. Accessed December 27, 2021.
Society of the Muse of the Southwest. Winners of the SOMOS Writing Contest (April 1, 2020 —June 15, 2020). Sylvia Ramos. Best in Creative Nonfiction, “May 29, 2020, In the Year of Our Peril.” Available at: https://somostaos.org/writing-contest-winners/. Accessed December 27, 2021.
US National Library of Medicine. Changing the face of medicine. Dr. Sylvia M. Ramos. Available at: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_258.html. Accessed December 27, 2021.