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Using Life’s Experiences to Determine the Meaning of Home

Profile in Medicine

Using Life’s Experiences to Determine the Meaning of Home

For Marcela del Carmen, MD, MPH, Massachusetts General Hospital’s new president, the importance of “home” is an unfailing theme. In part two of this three-part series, Dr. del Carmen continues to uncover how her experiences have influenced her life and defined the significance of home.

Julia Del Muro
April 23, 2024

This is the second in a three-part profile series. Please click here for part one.

Whether intentionally or not, the meaning of the word “home” comes up frequently when chatting with Marcela del Carmen, MD, MPH, newly appointed president of Massachusetts General Hospital. “Home” is a versatile word; it can be a noun, a verb, an adjective and even an adverb, and its meaning, each time it is used, is a direct reflection of one’s experience. For Dr. del Carmen, fleeing Nicaragua in 1979 and eventually landing in Seattle is a crucial moment where home begins to take a new shape.

Finding a Home

Seattle was the first of many new homes Dr. del Carmen and her family would have since emigrating to the United States. And, trying to acclimate to life as refugees came with many challenges — the normal ups and downs of adolescence were magnified by the need to learn a new language and a new way of life. At ten years old, Dr. del Carmen had to dive headfirst into American culture. “I still don’t understand dodgeball to this day,” she jokes.

But, in true form, Dr. del Carmen finds value in every memory. She remembers her younger brother, only four years old at the time, becoming her and her older brother’s salvation when they realized he had picked up English quicker than they had.

“For six months, before my older brother and I really started to understand English, my younger brother became our translator,” says Dr. del Carmen. “Here is this little kid, who, typically, as his older siblings, we would be teasing, but instead, he is becoming our lifeline. We needed to rely on each other for different things and work as a team. The experience brought us closer and taught us about solidarity and loyalty.”

As cliché as it sounds, an Elvis Presley song comes to mind while she speaks of this time. The opening lyrics are, “Home is where the heart is, and my heart is anywhere you are.” As Dr. del Carmen generously shares, it becomes clearer that home, for her, is a body of people, and not a place — it’s being surrounded by those you love and respect — and it’s the driver behind every decision she makes.

“Life happens the way it’s supposed to happen. So, it’s really about the people around you,” she says. “When the people around you lift you, open doors for you and bring you forward, especially when you’re facing real challenges — that’s when you reach your full potential. That’s how I ended up here. Because of all the people who have supported me.”

Next Stop, Miami

If you asked for “home” to mean a place in the United States before moving to Boston, Miami would be it for Dr. del Carmen. Her family moved there at the start of high school, and, in her opinion, “Miami was a softer landing.” The melting pot of people in Miami spoke to Dr. del Carmen’s craving for balance and acceptance. The city celebrated duality and permitted her to discover a happy medium that honors everything she already is and everything she wants to be.

“Miami had a lot of people from countries with similar experiences. My story was not unique there, which allowed us to lean on our identity as a Latin family and not forget where we came from,” says Dr. del Carmen. “But it also opened the possibility to adopt a new identity, and to figure out this new reality and opportunity in the United States.”

Dr. del Carmen thrived during her years in Miami and relished in its spirit of community. Her time there solidified her love of people and her desire to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps of bridging medicine and public health to make an impact. “As they say, ‘it takes a village,’” says Dr. del Carmen. “And when I was living in Miami, I was incredibly blessed to be surrounded by amazing people who looked out for one another and paid it forward. I knew that I, too, wanted to pay it forward.”

An Unexpected Change of Course

Like her grandfather, Dr. del Carmen set her mind to a career in medicine and would make her way to The Johns Hopkins Hospital to begin her training. But, unlike her grandfather, she chose to do her fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Mass General.

“Mass General is well-known for training you to be a well-rounded physician — not just a great surgeon, but a person who takes care of patients over the course of their journey,” says Dr. del Carmen. “There is no other place like it, so it made the most sense for me to move to Boston for those three years.”

The goal was for Dr. del Carmen to return to Johns Hopkins after her fellowship at Mass General was completed. Not because she did not appreciate Mass General, but because she had a mentor — Fredrick J. “Rick” Montz, MD, KM, FACOG, FACS, professor of gynecology, obstetrics, oncology and surgery at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service at The Johns Hopkins Hospital — who she greatly admired. He had recruited her, nurtured her and continued to mentor and support her even during her fellowship training at Mass General — he was like home for her career and future.

Three months after her return to Johns Hopkins, now as a new member of the faculty, Dr. Montz sadly passed away at the age of 47. It was unexpected and gut-wrenching for Dr. del Carmen. And it changed everything.

“Rick Montz’s passing was an incredible loss for me in so many ways; I was young and only three months into my practice at Johns Hopkins,” says Dr. del Carmen. She explains that she knew, right after his passing, that the role she and Dr. Montz had planned for her at Johns Hopkins would no longer be the same.

“So, I went back to this concept that has been entrenched in me since I was little — this idea that you rely on those who have supported you over your lifetime. You lean on your family, adapt and move forward, while being grateful for how the loss, any loss, teaches and empowers you,” says Dr. del Carmen.

“In life, falls are inevitable, but picking yourself up is indispensable — and how you pick yourself up reflects your character, your integrity and values, your core, your inner home. For me, having just left Mass General, that meant going back to Boston. My extended family was at Mass General. Mass General was now home.”

That was 2003, and Dr. del Carmen has been home ever since.

This story is the second of a three-part series, spotlighting Dr. Marcela del Carmen, newly appointed president of Mass General, president of Massachusetts General Physicians Organization and executive vice president of Mass General Brigham. For part one, click here.