Updated: Mar 3, 2021
By Gaby Edwards
When I FaceTime Ornella Pedrozo, BC ‘21, she’s breaking for lunch. She’s making something delicious in her Upper West Side apartment, scurrying in and out of frame to grab different ingredients while rain is pummeling outside, the mild storm occasionally breaking up our connection. We’ve been friends since our first year of college, so it’s lovely to catch up and compare our vastly different quarantine experiences—she’s in New York, while I am across the country in Berkeley. If my tone reads as saccharine, forgive me; it’s because I love and admire Ornella with a rare blend of tenderness and intensity.
Right before our conversation, Ornella had been working on her weekly Womxn’s Wellness Workshop that she’s hosting in conjunction with TwentyEight Health, a womxn’s health organization she’s interning with that addresses healthcare accessibility and combats discrimination. Every Thursday at the 111th Community Gardens, Ornella hosts these socially distant workshops, while also uploading all the information to a Google Doc for those who cannot attend in person. “I’m basically just sharing lots of resources regarding sexual wellness and health,” Ornella says, but I can tell she’s being modest when she shares the sprawling Google Doc containing her workshop plans and other relevant information: it is 27 pages and growing, and it includes Spanish and Portuguese translations of her work.
Illustration by Brooke McCormick
This project, which Ornella affectionately refers to as “my brainchild,” embodies her passion for the intersection of healthcare and systems of oppression, and her desire to radicalize womxn’s wellness. The content of her workshop spans the deconstruction of sexual violence, the legacy of medical violence against black and brown folx, the influence of capitalism on wellness practice, and more. Although the sometimes jargonistic theory that guides Ornella’s practice can be difficult to teach to a general audience, she is determined to make these resources accessible, refusing to alienate anyone seeking information about wellness. “I’m trying to make the language as accessible as possible, so I’ve been adding lots of parentheses for certain types of words that we are, of course, privileged enough to hear in our circles and because of the education that we have,” she says. “You know, I don’t want to use a word like ‘propagate’ too much if I really don’t have to.” Ornella’s project is solidarity work, not charity; she is acting with the members of her community instead of acting for them, and we should all take notes.
Ornella, who has wanted to be an OB-GYN since sophomore year of high school, is keenly aware of the hostile nature of our current healthcare system. “Medicine is really racialized and impersonal, and there is this big Western idea that science is far removed from emotion and empathy. The medical community really lacks connection,” Ornella tells me. “I mean you’ve been to the ER, I’m assuming, where they just pop in and out, talk to you for thirty seconds and then ignore you for seven hours, which is absolute trash. I always hated that.”
Ornella’s distinct charm and style seem to be interconnected with her intelligence and diligence, and supplemental to what will surely be her personal success. Readers lucky enough to have spotted her plugging away in Milstein in the pre-COVID era undoubtedly noticed her impeccable outfits—maybe her long white leather coat or high-waisted green slacks. Ornella approaches her academic and professional work with all the empathy that her friends know her for, while also bringing the knowledge she’s gleaned from her investigations into her interpersonal relationships.
Part of Ornella’s ability to make those around her feel at ease (be careful: she possesses that special quality that tempts her interlocutors into divulging all of their secrets) is indebted to her work with Mujeres, a Latinx organization on campus that centers the experiences of Latinx femmes. During Mujeres events, Ornella, who is the Secretary and Social Media Manager, can be found facilitating icebreakers, writing workshop introductions, and authoring community guidelines. These responsibilities require Ornella to create a safe, comfortable space for event attendees and members of the club, and cultivating these skills has inspired the way she approaches her work with medicine and community discourse. “We discuss a lot of different things in Mujeres: immigration, representation of Latinx in media, Latinx in STEM, how sexuality and gender are discussed in the home—a lot of those things have translated to the [Womxn’s Wellness Workshop] I’m doing now, especially following community guidelines and making people feel comfortable.”
After Ornella finishes her lunch, she clears her dishes, grabs a nail file, and starts to describe her post-graduation, pre-medical school plans. “I’m applying to be a teaching assistant in Spain,” she says. “I’m in the middle of writing all my ‘Why do you want to be a teacher’ essays, so you’ve asked me at a good time. As a physician you enter a certain point in your residency when you have to teach other people, and while I haven’t experienced the utmost racialized instances, things have certainly happened to me, and so it’s important that people see brown doctors.” In Spain, Ornella hopes to keep enriching her communication skills by putting herself in the educator role, and providing the empathy that is essential to her vision of a just healthcare system.
Ornella and I hang up, both a little bleary-eyed from staring at our phones, the unfortunate and now omnipresent consequence of a lengthy FaceTime. We’re used to catching up, and I always dwell on Ornella’s Instagram posts about TwentyEight Health’s birth control delivery or her workshop flyers, but this particular conversation has brought me closer to her—I better understand her work and admire her even more. The vital transformation in healthcare that will mark this new decade will be born of the hard work of visionaries like Ornella: ambitious and outspoken, yes, but also endowed with the kind of imagination that empowers her to ceaselessly envision a radically equitable future.