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UAG Alumni Michelle LaRue believes the right to good health should not depend on a person’s income
She studied biology at Pennsylvania State University and medicine at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara and interned for a year in New York.
By: UAG School of Medicine
17/Oct/2022
UAG
It’s hard to pinpoint when Michelle LaRue’s first developed her passion for helping poor and disenfranchised people. It’s always been a core part of her identity. But she believes it was her father, Frank LaRue, a tireless fighter for human rights in Guatemala, who helped influence her towards working in the public health sector rather than in a hospital setting.

“I appreciate the work that doctors in hospitals do, but I’m more driven by the duty to help our community, and because I grew up knowing that human rights are incredibly important, I believe that health is a right we must defend.”

LaRue arrived in Arlington when she was still a patojita, or “little duck,” as children are affectionately called in Guatemala. “It became a dangerous place to live. I grew up with my heart in two places, but I always had the desire to go back at some point.” She has done so for several years as a volunteer in rural hospitals in her country.

In addition to her father’s influence, her experience as a child translator in the school hallways shaped her future. She was constantly being stopped by administrators, secretaries, and teachers to help translate for parents. “I loved helping, but I wondered why there wasn’t a service in place for something that was so often needed.”
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NOT WITHOUT A DIRECT CONNECTION
She studied biology at Pennsylvania State University and medicine at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara and interned for a year in New York. Her childhood translation experience followed her there. As one of the few professionals who spoke Spanish, all the Latino patients ended up in her office, and she was happy to see them.

With the guarantee that work would never be lacking because public health is one of the ugly ducklings of the system, LaRue opted to move away from hospital medicine and enter the world of analysis, understanding, management, oversight, and responses to health crises — such as a pandemic.

She began managing national public health programs. But in her work as a public health specialist, she was lacking a direct connection to the community. She wanted to see with her own eyes the outcome of any policy she may have an influence on. She wanted to confirm that the system worked and that access was possible. She wanted to be in close contact with people, to experience a hug, a smile, or a simple, “It’s good to see you again.”

And she found all this at CASA Maryland, where, as director of Health and Human Services, she leads a team of 50 professionals. Before getting to where she is now, she worked at the National Alliance for Hispanic Health on projects related to cancer prevention, and diabetes, and on getting vaccination campaigns implemented, be it in San Diego or Houston.

She volunteered at the Arlington Free Clinic, where she reconnected with her local community. “I joined CASA to basically do the same thing, but with a direct, ongoing connection with people,” LaRue says. “Here I can see and feel the direct impact of our health programs.”
 
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THE FIRST TO LEND A HAND
Gustavo Torres, CASA’s executive director, is grateful for her tireless work. “She’s a born leader who’s been doing an extraordinary job for nine years. She’s our guide in terms of health, and she helped save many lives during the pandemic,” he says.
When it comes to pushing a cause on behalf of Latino health, LaRue doesn’t hesitate to lend a hand. She did so during her time with the coalition of community clinics to get temporary insurance for uninsured immigrant pregnant women. She testified before the Maryland General Assembly on the painful ramifications of the lack of prenatal care for both women and their babies. The battle was won, but she’s not the type of professional to just sit back — her focus is on making things happen.
“Even with insurance, medicine is a private, expensive business,” LaRue says. “You can end up going bankrupt in an emergency situation. Health care for our community has many challenges, but it should be the other way around, because to me it’s a non-negotiable human right.”
 

FROM HOME TO HOME DURING THE PANDEMIC

The frustration caused by the denial of such a fundamental right doesn’t deter her, it only encourages her to continue. “[She’s so] calm, transparent, modest, tireless, and humble that she communicates with people in a language that everyone understands,” Torres, the executive director, says.

He saw her at work during the most frightening moments of the pandemic. “When we were all scared and no one wanted to go out, she would go from home to home to find out how people were doing. That to me represents professionalism, humanity, and dedication like no other.” That effort earned her recognition from the Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan.

Together with her team, LaRue was out spreading information in Spanish. She led by example — it was practically impossible to see her without a mask.

She’s not reluctant to talk about herself, her dreams, childhood memories, or personal joys. But it never takes long for most conversations to return to defending and advocating for the human right to health.

With the same zeal with which she advocates for universal health care, she enjoys winning the occasional baseball, basketball, and volleyball game. The rest of what little time she has left is for spending time with family, especially her nieces and nephews: Alexa, Kayla, Andre, Marc, and James.
 
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