Written by Sandra Lee, RD, MPH candidate, Brown School and research assistant at the Global Health Center at the Institute for Public Health
I had the great pleasure to interview Vicky de Falla, MD, president of the board of directors at Liga Nacional Contra el Cáncer/Instituto Nacional de Cancerología (LIGA/INCAN) in Guatemala City. She shared her professional journey and personal stories about her life. It was inspirational to hear about her unique experiences and her passion for the hospital and helping poor and underserved communities.
Dr. de Falla began the conversation saying, “All my life, I wanted to be a doctor.” However, she started off studying pedagogy and then developing a nursery that was eventually passed to her mother. At the age of 33, Dr. de Falla was involved in a car accident and, after undergoing back surgery, had an extended hospital stay. It was at that point, that she decided to pursue a medical degree.
“I wanted to know how medicine works.”
Already having four children, she was apologetic about taking money from her family and children to attend a university, but it was all worth it.
After completion of her studies and research, Dr. de Falla opened a general clinic in Guatemala City, which focused on nutrition because, at that time, she was interested in losing weight.
During our interview, we bonded over our interest in nutrition and discussed the need to provide exceptional care to patients. Dr. de Falla said that she eventually met some volunteers from LIGA/INCAN and started to volunteer at the hospital in various roles. After hearing that a doctor was needed on the board to represent volunteers, she joined as a secretary, then acted as treasurer and ultimately, was promoted to board president.
Dr. de Falla’s role now mostly involves administration, finances and politics. However, she enjoys being able to listen and talk to patients in the waiting room, advocate for the patient experience and help in any way she can.
The hospital serves the poor and underserved who do not have insurance. It provides cancer treatment at a reduced fee or sometimes for free, based on patient circumstances. For patients transitioning into their end stage of life, Dr. de Falla treasures the opportunity to provide physical and emotional support and to just be there for patients and their families.
When asked about if being a female in medical school and working in Guatemala has had an impact on her experiences, she stated, “I never thought about that. I just did what I liked to do and I wanted to help people.”
Outside of work, Dr. de Falla enjoys swimming and spending time with family and friends and has a strong Catholic faith. Her husband is a very open person and supportive of her work. Before retirement, he was a journalist, interpreter, and an entrepreneur in construction. They have five children and 13 grandchildren, who all live close by. She loves her family dearly and laughing, she adds, “I am always tired on the weekends; I have to cook and look after the family and my grandchildren.” She brightens up when she talks about weekdays. “I am so happy being in the hospital, it’s my holiday.”
Dr. de Falla eventually closed her own clinic to focus on her work at LIGA/INCAN. However, she hopes to develop a small clinic as an extension to the hospital to provide after-hours services to patients. LIGA/INCAN usually closes at 4 p.m.
Today, Dr. de Falla continues her administrative role at LIGA/INCAN to provide exceptional cancer care and to collaborate with partners on incorporating prevention strategies. She is also determined to overcome the challenges of politics and to advocate for funding from the Ministry of Health and other donors.
“My dream is that this hospital should be the best in Central America, for all people, and for free.”