A Broadway performer. An accomplished pianist. A dedicated marathoner. A third-degree black belt. An award-winning filmmaker. A water-skier with all the right moves. A high-flying fighter pilot physician. Doctors from across the state open up about their off-script origin stories and lives outside the office.
The Farm Hand
Dr. Julian Nieves
Assistant professor of medicine at UConn Health
Dr. Julian Nievescalls the experience of practicing medicine during the coronavirus pandemic “an exercise in tenacity.” But talk to him for just a few minutes, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s had a tenacious dedication to helping his community since long before COVID hit.
Born and raised in Meriden, Nieves earned his M.D. at Cornell University, did his residency at Yale University, and completed his master’s in public health and a fellowship in minority health policy at Harvard, before joining UConn as a professor and preceptor, supervising medical students as they learn. He also serves as a volunteer physician in the university’s longstanding clinic for migrant farmworkers.
The work is personal. Nieves’ parents are from Puerto Rico, and his father was a migrant worker in the 1950s. “I’m standing on the shoulders of people like my parents, who have worked very hard and allowed me to be where I am,” says Nieves, who feels a sense of duty to give back to the community in any way he can.
The UConn clinic, which has existed since 1997, offers its patients everything from basic health assessments to catching larger issues like diabetes and asthma. Many workers don’t have the economic means to go to a doctor and pay out of pocket, and the clinic is one of the few times that they can see a health care provider. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the program has pivoted to testing and vaccinations for migrant farm workers and other underserved members of the community.
Working as a physician over the past year has taken a lot of grit, but Nieves chooses to take an optimistic view of the future. “Unfortunately, COVID has exacerbated some of the care gaps that have traditionally existed in the health care system,” he says. “However, COVID has also provided an opportunity for innovation and for systems to be redesigned based on the lessons we’ve learned.”
Part of the innovation he hopes will help close those care gaps is health education, and how digital health technology can improve health care for underserved populations and bring care into the 21st century. He’s also a big believer in approaching health and wellness education from a holistic perspective, reminding people how to live well and maintain balance in their lives. “You have to be hopeful and you have to be an optimist,” Nieves says. “I believe in the human spirit.”