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Profile: Carmen Chinea, seeing ‘a little me’ in every immigrant

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Carmen Chinea at her Hay Beach home.
Carmen Chinea at her Hay Beach home.

The urge to help neighbors seems to seep into the soul of people who call Shelter Island home.

Carmen Chinea, who has spent summers here with her family for the last 15 years, has the health and wellness of immigrant and indigent people close to her heart, and has made it her life’s work. She is chief medical officer of HRHCare, a New York-based non-profit health provider operating health centers in the Hudson Valley and on the East End to serve the poor and the uninsured.

The child of immigrants, Carmen said the course of her life has been profoundly influenced by her own experience. Her parents, Delia and Diosdado Chinea, were born in Cuba and visiting family in New York when Castro marched into Havana in 1959. They decided not to return.

“My mother knew no English and worked in a hot dog factory,” Carmen said. “My father worked at a diner as a busboy.”

Carmen was born in a women’s clinic in West Harlem.

In her entire clan of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, Carmen was the first to complete elementary school. She went on to high school, college, medical school and a masters in public health at Columbia University. When she started her education at five, she did not know a word of English.

By the mid 1980s, Carmen was a professional living in New York City. Before the debut of match.com, New York Magazine was famous for running personal ads that were required reading for single men and women looking for love. Carmen was hanging out with her cousins one day in 1985 and told them, “I bet I can find a husband through one of these things. They thought I was crazy.”

She soon found an ad that sounded good — “Six foot two, eyes of blue, not too good to be true. Looking for a tall non-smoking Manhattanite in the science world for a long lasting relationship.”

That ad must have sounded good to some other women too, since Carmen’s husband-to-be, Allan Richmond, got over 80 responses. He set out to meet with every single one, creating a grid that organized the respondents into a schedule of three one-hour meetings in the same restaurant, every day for weeks.

He met one woman for drinks, one for dinner and one for dessert — scheduling the most likely candidates for the dinner hour. According to Carmen, when Allan was at his table, any woman who walked into the restaurant was greeted by the maitre d’ with, “He’s over there.”

Carmen, who is 5 feet 10 inches, showed up for dinner wearing 3-inch heels, looked Allan in the eyes and a year later they were married.

About a year after that, their first child, Natalie, was born in 1987, followed by Olivia in 1989. Natalie is now in law school and Olivia headed for medical school.

After med school, Carmen got a fellowship to study nephrology at Cornell and became a kidney specialist. For 15 years, she had a solo practice in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, but said she found that “taking care of one patient at a time wasn’t enough.” She went for the masters in public health at Columbia where she learned about community health centers.

“I turned around,” she said. “I thought, Wow, if I could take an entire community like Suffolk County and change the outcomes, wouldn’t that be astronomical.”

When Carmen joined HRH Health 11 years ago, the organization ran eight health centers. They now run 24, focusing on areas with large numbers of agricultural workers, especially the East End.

Carmen pointed out that for many Shelter Island workers, the HRH Community Health Center in Greenport is their primary healthcare solution. This care extends and improves the lives of the gardeners, farmers, maids and restaurant workers who make possible the fine homes, green lawns and heirloom tomatoes enjoyed by the affluent summer population.

“They are medically under-served,” Carmen said. “There are not enough healthcare providers to take care of them. You think of the Hamptons as being so wealthy, but behind the curtains are so many other people.”

It was a desire to do something tangible to improve healthcare for hard working, uninsured East End people, that inspired the first annual “Honoring the Hands,” a wine-tasting event on Thursday, July 16. For every ticket sold, one farm worker gets a full physical and health evaluation at one of the HRH health centers. The benefit will take place at Martha Clara Vineyard, presenting Shelter Islanders with another opportunity to help neighbors in need.

In 1998, shortly after moving back to New York from Pennsylvania, Carmen decided to find the family a beach home in a quiet setting. The part about quiet ruled out the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore, and so she decided to try renting on Shelter Island. “The minute I got on that ferry, I said, this is it. I hadn’t even seen the house that I had rented.”

Carmen and her family spent the summers in the same house, which, after years of begging, the owners finally agreed to sell to her. “Fifteen years of family glue all tied to this house and this Island,” she said. “It’s a glue that you could not recreate anywhere.”

Carmen loves that there are no attractions on the Island. “At night we all sit together and tell stories, play games and read to each other,” she said. But not Scrabble. “Cubans play dominos.”

Over the years, some of her Island neighbors have become part of the family, too. When Carmen made the classic Cuban dish, ropa vieja, a stew of shredded beef and sauce, she had to tell her neighbors that the name translates as “old clothes.” Later they said, “We want that recipe for the dirty laundry.”

Carmen considers herself a progressive person, “but not about this place,” she said. “I don’t even really like to tell people about it. I want this house to be for the next three generations — my daughters and their daughters and my cousins and nieces and nephews, and I want Shelter Island to be the same.”

Carmen’s mother is now 88 and her father 83. Her success, like that of her two brothers who also went to college, is the fulfillment of a dream for her parents. “They are so proud,” she said. “That’s the vision I see when I see immigrants. I see a little me.”

Carmen radiates exhilaration for her work. “I’m going to do this until I die. I really feel that I am in this universe to help people who are ill,” she said. “There is so much to do in medicine … but right now it is Suffolk County.”

For information on how to attend or contribute to “Honoring the Hands” a wine-tasting event to benefit the HRH Community Health Center email Dorothy DeBiase at [email protected] or call 914-734-8736.