“It’s time to defy the status quo”: Dr. Lilia Cervantes accepts the 2024 Bernard Lown Award

Dr. Lilia Cervantes received the 2024 Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility on June 6, for her exceptional work advancing health equity and expanding access to care for undocumented immigrants.

Dr. Cervantes is the Director of Immigrant Health and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Inspired by the tragic loss of her patient and friend, she has spent her career advocating for equitable kidney health care for undocumented immigrants. Her advocacy and work helped spark significant policy changes in her home state of Colorado, which then led to other states expanding their provision of dialysis care.

Watch her acceptance of the Bernard Lown Award and read excerpts from her speech below.

The remarks of Dr. Lilia Cervantes

The following are excerpts from Dr. Lilia Cervantes’ remarks at the Bernard Lown Award ceremony June 6, 2024.

For 6 years, I worked as a hospital medicine physician at the safety-net hospital in Denver.  I took care of undocumented immigrants with kidney failure who had no access to regular, three times per week dialysis. Instead, they would come in on an emergency basis once per week to be dialyzed. 

Hilda was one of those undocumented immigrants with kidney failure who became a dear friend and changed the path of my career. Our lives were parallel but differed in one critical way.

“My parents moved to the U.S. just a week before I was born so I became a U.S. citizen. Hilda was undocumented. That made all the difference.” 

Dr. Lilia Cervantes, BLASR acceptance remarks, 2024

Each week she was admitted to the hospital when she was at the brink of death. Each week, her sons wondered if their mom would survive to the following week. Hilda made a difficult decision. She decided to find adoptive parents for her boys so that they wouldn’t live in constant psychosocial distress, and she stopped emergency dialysis. Ten years ago, Hilda died on Mother’s Day.

“After Hilda died, I faced a choice. I chose to act. I did not know if I could make a difference, only believed that I had to try and that I needed to persist.”

Dr. Lilia Cervantes, BLASR acceptance remarks, 2024

This advocacy, to provide undocumented immigrants with standard dialysis, nearly got me fired twice. It came close to costing me my career.  Engaging in advocacy allowed us to do something I thought was not possible and the relationships that we collectively cultivated have propagated additional social and health justice work.  

Hilda started me on a path of advocacy at the state level. Together with non-profit organizations and in collaboration with patients, clinicians, and health systems, we engaged in strategic advocacy and expanded access to regular dialysis through Medicaid in the state…effective February 2019. Our work did not stop. After we changed this in Colorado, we continued to publish on this issue. I am pleased to share that now over 20 states provide state-wide regular dialysis.

“As clinicians, moral injury is not something we can stand by and abide. It is a wake-up call. It should compel us to act and inspire us to create change.”

Dr. Lilia Cervantes, BLASR acceptance remarks, 2024

We cannot, and should not, idly accept unjust and unsustainable systems, or merely stand by, while undocumented immigrants are left out, excluded from healthcare…left to rely on a patchwork system.  All people, regardless of immigration status, should have sustainable, high quality, access to healthcare. It’s time to defy the status quo. It’s time to confront, to demand, and to create the change.