Dr. Mayra Alicia Overstreet Galeano and her family fled war-torn Nicaragua in 1985.
In 1985, Dr. Mayra Alicia Overstreet Galeano fled war-torn Nicaragua with her family. She was only 9.
The Sandinistas had confiscated the family's personal belongings. They left with just three suitcases and their parents' advice: “The only thing that can’t be taken from you is your education.”
Galeano would make the most of her education in America, getting a scholarship to college and then going to medical school.
But it was difficult in the beginning. Galeano and her family settled in Tennessee with an aunt who helped get all the paperwork for them to come to the United States as refugees.
Going from a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua to the mountains of Tennessee was a culture shock for Galeano. At the time, her family was one of only three Spanish-speaking families in the county. Her English was limited; she only had a few crash courses before beginning elementary school.
For Galeano, her elementary school experience was a great one. The school she attended was very accommodating to her family and they went above and beyond to welcome them. She remembers her principal giving her rides to after-school sports activities and even purchasing her a pair of running shoes.
Her family knew the struggles of being refugees and a low-income family. They had no insurance and it wasn’t until she was 15 that she had the chance to visit a dentist. With the encouragement of her parents, she and her siblings did very well academically and after graduating from high school she was awarded a scholarship to attend Duke University. At the time, she had not planned on becoming a doctor, but knew she wanted to serve families who struggled like hers.
Galeano graduated from Duke in 1999 with a degree in biology and had planned to do HIV research until an opportunity opened for her to work for the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative.
As a result of her scholarship to Duke, she met a faculty member that received funding from the CDC for a project to study lead exposure in children. There was a need for a Spanish-speaking person with a science background. As part of the job, they would be doing an analysis of data and also going into homes to collect samples of paint. A lot of the homes were lower-income, Spanish-speaking families. Galeano was perfect for the job.
During her time working with the Children’s Health Initiative, Galeano was studying the social determinants of health and trying to find ways to address them to change the outcomes for the underserved families she was working with.
According to the CDC, economic and social conditions influence the health of people and communities. These conditions are shaped by the amount of money, power, and resources people have, all of which are influenced by policy choices.
During the course of her work, Galeano noticed a need to address the immediate health care concerns of these underserved families and came to the conclusion that until these needs were met they would not be able to address the larger issues affecting their health.
The families she worked with were struggling with health concerns such as asthma due to mold in the home. The mold issue had to be addressed but asthma needed to be treated first. These pressing issues were stopping the families from addressing the cause of asthma.
“Being able to address the immediate health care concerns, I thought, would help me better advocate for addressing the social determinants of health,” Galeano said. At that moment, Galeano decided to go to medical school.
In 2011, Galeano graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine. She then began her family medicine residency at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. She completed her residency in 2014 but stayed for one more year to do a faculty development fellowship. After completing her fellowship in 2015, she remained at OHSU and taught for a year until she moved to Wilmington in March 2016.
A few key factors led Galeano to Wilmington. “I grew up on an island so being close to the beach and seafood is really good,” Galeano said. “I get to, professionally, do the things that I want to do as well.”
Galeano wanted to be in a position where she could teach, do prenatal care and deliveries, and serve a population similar to the one she came from. She now teaches in the Family Medicine Residency Program at New Hanover Regional Medical Center and is a family physician at MedNorth.
“For me, I understood the importance of family health, understanding how my family was affected by the war and how the community affects your health as well," Galeano said. "It’s been an important part of my career and my personal life. It’s incredibly rewarding.
"Health doesn’t come just from a pill. It really comes from your community and from a better understanding of how you fit in the world.”