Lilia Cervantes, MD, helped create this altar at the Denver Botanic
Gardens on the Day of the Dead to celebrate the life of a former
By Lilia Cervantes, MD
(May 2017) I am a Latina physician who had been a full-time clinician until 2014
when I began pursuing a research career. I am driven by a passion to
change local and national policy to improve access to care for
undocumented immigrants with end-stage renal disease (ESRD).
physician at Denver Health, I became closely acquainted with an
undocumented Mexican patient who had ESRD with severe symptoms. In
Colorado, undocumented patients can only receive dialysis when they
arrive critically ill in the emergency department.
My patient was homeless. She had two boys in elementary school. She had previously suffered three cardiac arrests.
Her goal was to be comfortable. She asked to withdraw from dialysis, to have a natural death.
gathered a multi-disciplinary team. Together, we found her a temporary
home while we worked with an adoption agency to find a family that
adopted her children. We then sought assistance from the Mexican
consulate, securing her a passport to return home to Mexico. She wanted
to pass away in her father’s home.
My patient’s story has inspired me to help others like her and her experience continues to ground my research vision.
after she passed away, and while I was working as a full-time clinical
hospitalist, I wrote a research proposal to improve palliative care in
Latinos with ESRD. I was awarded a four-year Harold Amos Medical
Faculty Development stipend from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
transition from full-time clinician to a practicing physician with a
research portfolio has been both challenging and exciting.
childhood shaped how I respond to challenges. I grew up in the Valverde
neighborhood on Denver’s west side and I faced food insecurity,
homelessness, and learned English as a second language.
each challenge we faced as a family, my parents taught me to be
tenacious, to use education to empower myself to change the well-being
of my community, and to believe that the impossible is possible.
thought it would be impossible for me to switch from a clinical to a
research track after working as a full-time hospitalist for six years.
It has now been two years since I received the Harold Amos Medical
Faculty Development award. I am determined to succeed and become an
My research to shape public policy and
change access to care for undocumented immigrants with ESRD has
informed others of the experiences of patients whom they might have not
These studies have included qualitative
interviews of patients describing their illness experiences, which was
published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine; a retrospective
analysis looking at mortality differences between emergency-only and
routine thrice weekly hemodialysis among undocumented immigrants, which
is currently in review for publication; and qualitative interviews of
healthcare professionals who provide care for undocumented immigrants
with ESRD to describe their perspectives, which is currently a work in
My patient passed away three years ago now. I have
remained in touch with her boys and the people who surrounded her during
her last weeks in Colorado.
This past year, we all came
together for Day of the Dead at the Denver Botanic Gardens to celebrate
her life by creating an altar in her honor. We all reflected on how her
life had inspired and changed us for the better.
Lilia Cervantes, MD, is an associate professor of medicine and a hospitalist at Denver Health and Hospital Authority.