Young professionals, like WakeMed neonatologist Dr. Claudia Tolentino Cadet, are bringing multicultural perspectives and expanding Raleigh’s reach throughout the world.

By Linda Formichelli
Photos by Davies Photography

Claudia Tolentino Cadet’s story starts the way so many do: Her family moved to New York City from outside the U.S.—specifically from the Dominican Republic—to provide her with more opportunity.

Then her story veers from the usual path and winds a circuitous route to Columbia University, The Dominican Republic (again), Columbia University (again), Raleigh, and back to the Dominican Republic yet a third time—with each step building on the last in a virtuous cycle.

From Dream to Doctor

 dr. claudia tolentino cadet with her children, Sofia (3) and Marcus (6).

dr. claudia tolentino cadet with her children, Sofia (3) and Marcus (6).

Cadet’s father worked at Manhattan Mini Storage, and her family lived in the supervisor’s apartment. “I remember going on rounds with him, and attending a very cute Catholic school near Columbia,” she says. Cadet grew up telling herself she was going to attend Columbia, oblivious to any other university—and to how challenging it is to be accepted at Columbia, much less to succeed as a student there.

Bergen County, New Jersey, was the family’s next stop, where Cadet spent her childhood—except for the summers in the Dominican Republic, where she went to summer camp and visited the beach with her grandmother. “That’s how I maintained the culture growing up, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had that much exposure to the Dominican Republic,” Cadet explains. “It’s part of the reason I feel so tied to the country.”

Math, science, and reading were Cadet’s favorite subjects in school. She chose to major in English at Georgetown, then spent a year teaching English in Malaysia. With this background—not to mention being bilingual and an accomplished athlete—Cadet could have ended up anywhere. Professional sports, teaching, engineering, and writing were just a few of the options open to her.

But during her first month in Malaysia, Cadet grew close with a group of fellow teachers who all happened to be in medical school. “It was a sign,” she says. “I fly all the way across the world, I’m not sure about what I’m supposed to do with my life, and here I am making friends with these medical students—and I’m so excited about what they’re doing.” So Cadet applied to medical school from Malaysia. She had only one week during a Thanksgiving visit to the U.S. to attend college interviews, which meant her list was limited to those that could accommodate her timing.

The med school she ended up at? Columbia, of course.

Making A Difference Near and Far

During her residency in pediatrics, Cadet spent a month working in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). “It was the hardest month I had that year, but I really liked the immediate gratification: I’m at a delivery, and if a baby’s not breathing, I help the baby breathe and the baby gets better,” she says. “Working with the families adds an extra level of complexity that I love.” Cadet became a neonatologist in 2013, and—with her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, and their toddler son—moved to Raleigh, where she first worked with Rex Hospital/UNC, then moved to WakeMed’s Division of Neonatology in 2016.

Yes: She had a baby while all this was going on, and a second child, her daughter, was born the year the family moved to Raleigh. In 2012 and 2013, she and Alexandra Leader, another pediatric specialist, were also busy creating the Manos de Ramon Foundation. The Dominican Republic has one of the worst neonatal and maternity mortality rates in Latin America, and this foundation aims to solve that crisis. “It’s a labor of love that Alex and I do in our ‘free time,’” laughs Cadet. “She has three boys. I call the foundation our ‘third full-time job.’”

Manos de Ramon started with small NICU projects at a single hospital in Santiago, and now works with a network of five hospitals. Team members fly down to teach “master trainers” how to resuscitate babies, prevent postpartum hemorrhage, and provide other critical care. Those master trainers then train the providers in their respective hospitals.

So far, more than 140 local providers have been trained, and they’re turning in reams of data to the foundation to measure the effects of the training. “We
did collect some data on the first round,  and it basically shows us that despite the training, half the babies are still cold,” Cadet says. “I can’t even tell you what that would have been beforehand, but it gives us some [information] that we can feed back to the hospitals. On our next trip, we’re going to try to focus on those areas individually.”

Recently Cadet opened a GoFundMe page to build support for Manos de Ramon and the work it is doing. (To learn more or make a donation, visit GoFundMe/ManosDeRamonFoundation.)

Cadet also works as a neonatal resource for the World Pediatric Project, which does the same type of work as Manos de Ramon, but in Belize. Her team’s trips to the small Central American country have not only taught them lessons about pediatric medicine, but also about diversity in the U.S.

Raleigh Local Now Means Global

Cadet and her family immediately felt like part of the Raleigh family when they moved here. Her husband is Haitian-American, making their family truly multicultural—and Cadet would love to see more diverse role models in the local media to reflect the Raleigh community. “I feel like the local media are the ones showcasing the local talent and doing community building,” she says. “Those are the media that are really important because, yeah, you can have Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of Vogue, but that’s very removed from what your local community is doing.”

Through her work with the World Pediatric Project, Cadet has discovered that diversity goes both ways. “I took a couple of my nurses to Belize, and two of them had never traveled outside of the country before,” she says. Her team was struck by how much people were doing with so few resources in Belize. Says Cadet, “That was a really cool cultural exchange. Part of this whole diversity issue is not just highlighting diversity here, but also having people go to other countries and see how they live there.”

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