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She almost died from Covid at this hospital, which saved her life. Now she leads it.

Helen Arteaga Landaverde is the first woman — and first Hispanic — leading one of New York City's largest public hospitals in Queens, one of the country's most diverse counties.
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In 2020, when New York City was the epicenter of the Covid pandemic and grappling with thousands of cases, Helen Arteaga Landaverde became seriously ill with the disease and was admitted to New York City Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, a public hospital that is part of the country's largest municipal health system.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die in the same place where my father died,’” said Arteaga Landaverde, whose father's leukemia diagnosis and rapid death years before had compelled her to shift her career trajectory from chemistry to public health.

She was one of the fortunate ones who survived Covid, and a year later, the medical staff who cared for her found themselves working under her leadership: In 2021, Arteaga Landaverde became Elmhurst's first female — and first Hispanic — chief executive officer. The public hospital she now leads was founded in 1837 in the borough of Queens, a county of over 2 million people that's one of the most ethnically diverse in the country.

In the last few years, the history-making CEO has been focused on ensuring that Elmhurst gets the same kind of high-tech equipment that is available at private hospitals, with the goal of making it a top facility in the country. "Two hundred thousand dollars," she said, pointing to a machine. "It's a small machine, but it helps our patients so much."

"I wanted to do something that would change the world — that our people know that one of them is running the largest hospital in Queens," Arteaga Landaverde said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo, "that one of them also understands it's not easy to come to this country, that it's not easy to learn a new language."

Arteaga Landaverde is a longtime resident of Corona, Queens, having arrived with her family from Ecuador when she was young. Like many immigrant families, they came in search of a better life, and she said she saw how health care played a vital role in the community.

“I wanted to study chemistry to find the cure of AIDS because I would see my neighbors, people I loved in my church were getting sick, they were dying, and there was a stigma that it was something bad,” she said.

Helen Arteaga Landaverde.
Helen Arteaga Landaverde.NYC Health + Hospitals

Arteaga Landaverde earned a scholarship to New York University, where she majored in chemistry, but her father’s leukemia diagnosis and subsequent death inspired her to channel that grief and change direction, earning a master’s in public health at Columbia University. Later, working with several community leaders, she opened the Plaza del Sol Family Health Center in Queens in 2014 in her father’s memory.

Plaza Del Sol has provided care to more than 30,000 patients regardless of their ability to pay; “a place that everyone could go to,” she said.

Having already served on the hospital’s board of directors, Arteaga Landaverde went through 21 interviews for the CEO spot and was selected from among 300 applicants.

“When I arrived, people were scared, they wanted hope, they wanted solutions,” she said, adding that her priority is to show warmth and humanity to the hospital's patients. During the interview, she ran into her mother, who had come in for an appointment, in the hospital's corridor, both sharing a laugh about the chance encounter.

Arteaga Landaverde's supporters say it was about time that someone from the community who understands its needs was picked to head the hospital.

“One hundred and ninety years had to go by for a woman, a Latina, to finally be picked to be this center’s director,” said Vladimir Gasca, director of behavioral health and psychiatry at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst.

Currently working on a doctorate at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, Arteaga Landaverde has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a fellowship with the National Hispana Leadership Institute.

As the nation marks Women's History Month, she was asked her advice to girls and women who may think it's difficult to reach a goal, like she may have thought herself.

“Keep in mind it’s hard, but dream as big as you possibly can,” Arteaga Landaverde said, spreading her arms wide open.

An earlier story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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