Lorena Quiroz-Lewis remembers fondly the first seven years of her life in Ecuador. She recalls going to her Abuelita’s house every Sunday for dinner where women and children gathered to comb hair, talk about their husbands and breastfeed their babies.
“I remember walking around to several of my Aunts and looking down at the bundles held in their arms as they nursed their babies with no shame, breasts out, laughing loudly at something one of them said…Getting scolded for not bringing our Tias the chicken soup, and listening to them discuss how tightly they had their fajas (garters) and showing off the excellent job they had done in tightening their stomachs,” Quiroz-Lewis reminisces.
When Quiroz-Lewis became a mother after moving to the Mississippi Delta, her experience lacked any of the warmth and comfort she felt in Ecuador.
She found herself at a hospital where staff treated her a “substandard human” without health insurance.
Quiroz-Lewis tells part of her birth story:
“[I was] scared witless about giving birth naturally, even though I had been in labor for two days with no medications. In the end, the fear [hospital staff] instilled in me– of tearing my baby’s shoulders off, breaking her arms– I had a c-section. My baby was taken from me, bottle fed while I recovered, and all my dreams of having a natural birth and nursing my baby with little interventions were gone.”
Upon her arrival home, Quiroz-Lewis struggled to breastfeed; breasts bleeding and beset with an unexplained fever, she landed back in the hospital for days. It wasn’t until her mother, father and sisters arrived that she felt truly taken care of.
“For the week they were there, they took care of me, my baby, my husband and my home,” Quiroz-Lewis says. “This is why I treasure women and the importance of our culture, our tribes, because they saved my life and the life of my child. They nursed me back to health.”
Still trying desperately to put her daughter to breast, Quiroz-Lewis ultimately found herself at the health department seeking formula.
That day, the district breastfeeding coordinator happened to be there. She and Quiroz-Lewis engaged in a welcome exchange; the woman wondered why she was switching to formula.
“I showed her my scabbed breasts,” Quiroz-Lewis recalls. “At that moment, my baby started to root.”
The breastfeeding specialist took the cue and asked if Quiroz-Lewis would try to feed her baby.
For the first time in six weeks, Quiroz-Lewis says she felt no pain while breastfeeding as the woman put her baby “so lovingly” to her breast. For over an hour, the woman sat attentively with Quiroz-Lewis and guided her to a support group about to take place.
“[I] walked into a room filled with breastfeeding women, babies running… women laughing loudly, grandmas holding toddlers while their daughters tried to nurse,” Quiroz-Lewis recalls. “I was home.”
Six months later, the breastfeeding coordinator offered Quiroz-Lewis a peer counselor position.
“My love for the health of moms and babies has become my passion ever since that fateful day,” she says.
Today, Quiroz-Lewis is a bilingual health and wellness coach, Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) and executive director at LABALink (Latin American Betterment Association.)
In celebration of Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month, we showcase Quiroz-Lewis’s accomplishments and contributions to the field of maternal child health as she works tirelessly to improve health outcomes for Latino families.
Quiroz-Lewis has nearly two decades of public health experience.
“During these years my passion has continued to be improving access to culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Community and health equity for People of Color (POC),” Quiroz-Lewis says.
She spent 10 years with the WIC Breastfeeding Program and five years with the Mississippi State Department of Health Office of Health Disparities Elimination and Office of Preventive Health as State Diabetes Coordinator. The Office of Health Disparities Elimination was instrumental in developing a strategic plan and policy that would ultimately address poor maternal child health outcomes. It brought the first medical interpreter trainings to the state where Quiroz-Lewis was a trainer, and it provided the first Spanish language chronic disease trainings in the state. The office hosted a health fair and collaborated with other community partners to bring nutritional workshops to residents.
“It was a huge success but lack of funding has [prevented] us from doing the work that is necessary to scale programs that are direly needed,” Quiroz-Lewis says.
Quiroz-Lewis is responsible for restructuring the main role and mission of LABA to improve quality of care, access to care and increase community and business partnerships in the Latin American community.
Her work doesn’t end there. Quiroz-Lewis is a master level trainer for Stanford’s Chronic Disease and Diabetes Programs and a CDC Lifestyle Diabetes Prevention Coach. She has been asked to speak before the City of Ridgeland’s Chamber on Diversity, Inclusion and Language Access and has participated in the B.B. King’s Museum’s Racial Equity Panel Programs.
She is part of the Mississippi Breastfeeding Coalition and the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN.)
Currently, Quiroz-Lewis conducts interviews with women in the Latino community about their hospital birth and breastfeeding experiences and access to resources in their language to help engage providers and advocate for proper maternal health services by sharing personal stories.
“In the Delta, Latino moms are invisible,” Quiroz-Lewis states. “They lack a voice because they are undocumented and either do not speak the language or do not speak well. There is no one to advocate for them, nor do they have the resources to advocate for themselves.”
As a self proclaimed writer and storyteller, Quiroz Lewis documents the accounts of her life; stories from Ecuador, her family’s migration to the States, growing up Latina in New York, marrying and moving to rural Mississippi.
“Writing can be a way to influence people, advocate for yourself and the rights of others as well as show vulnerability and be able to connect with people on so many levels,” she says.
Latino authors like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and Esmeralda Santiago have deeply influenced Quiroz-Lewis.
“Their contribution to the literal world and to humanity as a whole, by giving a voice to our community and our people, highlighting our struggles and successes, sharing our culture and the light we bring to this country, brings me great pride,” she says.
Quiroz-Lopez honors their legacy working to improve conditions for Latino families in a state with chilling maternal infant mortality rates, some of the lowest breastfeeding rates and highest obesity rates.
“There are so many things that we can improve on– basic things which are not part of the CDC’s recommendations–which can prevent so many of these tragedies,” Quiroz-Lopez begins. “Things that involve cultural practices, basic nutrition, the care of our women and babies by our tribe, the cuarentena, days of rest which follows birth which gives emotional and physical support to a mom who has just delivered a tiny human.”
She goes on, “In this country where healthcare is a right and technology is at the tips of our fingers, we have forgotten the human part of health care, which along with our cultural practices can be used to improve health outcomes on maternal child health.”
As allies, Quiroz-Lewis offers this for our consideration: “It is impossible to understand the complexities of people’s cultures and languages and cultural norms. What can work in these cases as our country moves into a more diverse population, is kindness. Show kindness to your clients. Listen, look at the expressions on their faces, do not leave without making sure that mom is doing ok, come back and follow up. Show love.”