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Dr. Maria Isabel Herran

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1953

Medical School

University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine



Career Path

Pediatric medicine
Dr. Maria Isabel Herran


I wanted to obtain an education that nobody could take away from me. When I was 8 years old, I left my country of birth because of political turmoil. I became a refugee. My whole family had been relatively wealthy but became totally dispossessed overnight. I realized at that age that money, social status and material wealth were transient, but education was long lasting. I decided since then, I wanted to obtain an education... I always liked children and helping people. I thought the best way to attain my goals was becoming a pediatrician to service and help people.


Maria Isabel Herran, M.D., has devoted herself to international health, refugee children, and the development and regulation of international adoption. Like much of the work needed to protect vulnerable populations in the developing world, needs far exceed the funding available. Since 1999 Dr. Herran has volunteered full-time to work with non-profit agencies, motivated by her own experiences as a refugee and inspired by the efforts of her mentors to help children around the world.

Born in Cuba and raised in the United States from age 8, Maria Herran observed early on that the wealth and comfort of her family changed drastically once they became refugees in the United States. "I realized at that age that money, social status, and material wealth were transient, but education was long-lasting....[If I could obtain an education,] nobody could take that away from me."

As a child she was discouraged by a family friend and doctor from becoming a physician "He used to tell me," she remembered, "that medicine was not a career for women." She pursued her goal, however, graduating with a bachelor of science degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Puerto Rico in 1974 and earning a doctor of medicine degree from the university's School of Medicine in 1977.

She moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1983, although she spent some time in Puerto Rico working part time while raising her small children. In 1989 she returned to Cleveland to work in pediatrics at Mt. Sinai Hospital. As Dr. Herran raised her children over the next few years, she worked part time at various hospitals. In the spring of 1999, she became a full-time volunteer for the Rainbow Center for International Child Health at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, the only American hospital devoted to international child health. The Rainbow Center is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization founded in 1987 to extend medical care to children throughout the world, especially those living in countries in the developing world, to extend expertise of child health colleagues, and to train students and residents to provide care at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

Working toward her areas of special interest, Dr. Herran has taken on many roles, including clinical instructor in pediatrics, a coordinator of the International Pediatric Chat Line for Case Western Reserve University, coordinator of Latin American Programs for the Rainbow Center, and attending pediatrician for the International Adoption Clinic at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the National Hispanic Medical Association.

In 1999, soon after she began volunteering with the Rainbow Center, Dr. Herran worked for a month as a pediatrician in Kosovo, caring for the children affected by the consequences of war. Conditions in the war-ravaged city were overwhelming: "How could I diagnose strep throat without a [lab] test and, even worse, without any test at all? How could I diagnose hundreds of cases of Hepatitis A, just with dipsticks? In order to accomplish something, I had to learn from my colleagues...the patients, the nurses, even the custodian who taught me some words in Albanian...I had to become a better physician; I had to be a better human being." In July 2002 she also traveled to El Salvador, to help victims of Dengue fever.

Dr. Herran has also helped bring information to different groups by translating into Spanish Helping the Children: A Practical Handbook for Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, published by Health Frontiers, a small all-volunteer nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to seek out "opportunities for child development and international health that would be lost without a volunteer effort." The manual is distributed through the Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the International Pediatric Association. One of Health Frontiers' founding members and its medical director is Karen Olness, M.D., a professor of pediatrics, family medicine, and international health at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and an influential mentor in the life and career of Dr. Herran.

Dr. Herran is married to Roberto Novoa, M.D., and they have three children. She gives much of her time voluntarily to improve the health and recovery of vulnerable children worldwide, and as her mentor, Dr. Olness, has testified, "No task is too mundane."

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Leaving my country and getting used to a different environment, seeing my parents facing financial hardship and overriding prejudices about women in medicine. My mother's doctor, a family friend, tried to discourage me every time I mentioned I wanted to be a physician. He used to tell me that medicine was not a career for women.

How do I make a difference?

I do not think I have made a big difference but I like to think of the well-known phrase: "In a hundred years it might not matter the money you had in the bank or the car you drove, but the world might be different because you were important in the life of a child."

Who was my mentor?

I would like to acknowledge two mentors in my career: First my fourth grade teacher. Right after I left my country, she helped me adapt to my new situation. She was my fifth and seventh grade teacher as well. She guided me through those troubled years. I have kept in touch with her ever since, mostly through letters, even if distance kept us apart. My more recent mentor has been Dr. Karen Olness. After a hiatus in my career during which I raised my children and worked few hours, I was moved by Dr. Olness's work in international child health, and I decided to join her team. Guided by her example, it has been a very fulfilling and intense experience.

How has my career evolved over time?

When I think of my last few years working in international health, I like to quote some words from Pedro Arrupe, S.J.: "What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, what amazes you with joy and gratitude." These words summarize well my feelings toward international health issues and dreams of improving children's health worldwide. I learned about service to others and advocating for children from my two mentors.

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