Antonio Moya - Neurologist and Public Health Advocate
Antonio Moya is a Neurologist and Public Health Advocate currently doing a research fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles. The sciences have always been an interest of his growing up and his grandmother’s stroke brought a focus to his career as a doctor. Neurology and how the brain works was a compelling subject for Antonio, also touching other aspects of his life like music and identity. As an undergrad at UCLA and med student at UCSF, Antonio worked with groups and clinics that helped the Filipino American community and it is important that Filipino patients have providers that speak Tagalog and understand the culture. His research focuses on Filipino health issues with the goal of overall health (neurological, physical, mental, sexual) in the community. Antonio is currently working on a focus group in Historic Filipinotown to get a better understanding on the community’s thoughts on stroke and barriers to emergency care. Antonio encourages a healthy lifestyle, exercise and diet.
How did you get started in medicine? What about medicine and neuroscience interested you?
I was a very nerdy kid growing up and I loved biology, astronomy, and marine biology. I was also interested in anatomy and human biology, but a career as a doctor didn’t become a career dream for me until a family sickness hit home. When I was in high school, I found out that my grandmother had just suffered a stroke in Olongapo, Philippines. I didn’t know what a stroke was and as a high schooler, didn’t even know how a stroke was different from a heart attack. I also felt very powerless and hearing that she had delayed care in the Philippines made me angry. I wanted to know what I could do to help her and my family in this situation and future situations. And I knew as a doctor, I would be able to help my family and community directly while still being able to dive into the science of wellness. I also wanted to see if I could prevent stroke among other Filipinos.
Inspired by the story and life of my grandma who eventually passed away from her stroke, I wanted to find out what happens with the brain when parts of it die quickly as in a stroke. To me it was so fascinating that there were ways to save the brain during stroke.
I was also interested in the brain for other reasons. I love music and wanted to understand how music is created in the brain, how humans are able to create beauty in music and change people’s emotions through a touching song.
Finally, I identify with the LGBTQ community at that time and wanted to know how my brain was different from those who did not identify as LGBTQ. I think it’s fascinating how our brain through genes and environment can help create uniqueness in each individual, each patient, and this is also one of the reasons I became a neurologist, to discover where things go wrong in the brain and restore normalcy to a patient’s life.
What are your career and research interests?
I love working as a clinical neurologist I see patients here in Los Angeles. But I also love to conduct public health research about the community that I’m from and how we can improve health among minorities and immigrants. Currently I am conducting a study on stroke in Filipino Americans in partnership with the local community. The study I’m doing now is called the PANSIN Project, or the “Pilipino American Stroke Intervention” Project. The goal of this project is to find out what cultural barriers and knowledge barriers stop Filipinos from calling 911 when they have a stroke. There are so many barriers to why we may not reach for help immediately and a stroke is an extremely time-sensitive disease. There’s no room for delay! You must call 911 the moment that you suspect that someone is having a stroke.
Other research: Filipino Americans, among other Asian subgroups, have some of the worst health outcomes in terms of heart disease and stroke and it is commonly stated that 80% of all strokes are preventable. This begs the question, what can we as Filipino Americans do differently to stop stroke in our community? This is what my research focuses on.
When did you start working on/doing research on Filipino health issues?
Since I was at UCLA as an undergrad, I worked with a group called Pilipinos for Community Health. We did blood screenings in front of Seafood City in Glassell Park and Carson. I would see Filipinos walking out of the market and once we showed them that they had high blood pressure they would either not be surprised or would state that they never knew that their pressure was so high. Unfortunately high blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke and heart attack. At UCSF as a medical student, I worked in the first clinic in the city created specifically for the Filipino community in SoMa (South of Market). We started a clinic there for that community and tried to listen to what health priorities were most important to the community. We had providers who could speak Tagalog, who looked like the patients that we were serving. It was very obvious that the Filipino patients felt more comfortable when they could speak Tagalog with their provider and have a provider that understood their culture.
I am currently at UCLA doing a research fellowship, and it’s such a pleasure being able to engage with the community to grow this research about Filipino American health issues. It really is about time that we had our voice heard when it comes to health!
Why did you choose to work in the Fil Am community? Educate them?
We are not doing well in terms of heart disease and stroke. Research publications on Filipino Americans are so scarce. So I encourage anyone interested in health and careers in health to pursue research with the Filipino American community to uncover the health issues that are most pressing, whether it be in stroke, mental health, sexual health, etc. There is so much that can be done to improve our community and research is one powerful means to get the word out that Filipino Americans can achieve better overall health!
What other communities do you serve?
Clinical - Latino
Research - Filipino and Asian American Pacific Islander
I’m very open to furthering the research. What we learn in the Fil Am community, we can potentially give to other South East Asian communities.
Can you talk about your focus group in Historic Filipinotown about strokes?
In the focus groups we interviewed 5 different groups.
1st was Filipinos over age 60, who had the highest risk of stroke. It includes people who have a stroke before, and those with stroke risk factors, including but not limited to diabetes and high cholesterol.
2nd group was spouses of those at risk for stroke.
3rd & 4th groups were of either paid or unpaid caregivers, people who care for people who need medical help.
5th group was the youth, anyone younger than 30, and of Fil Am descent and with an interest in the Fil Am community.
I selected those groups to get a wide Filipino American perspective on stroke and barriers to emergency care.
The research is still preliminary. A lot of the common themes that we’ve seen so far have to do with issues related to documentation and that being a barrier to calling 911, spiritualistic fatalism, the thinking “bahala na” oh well it’s happening so it’s just going to happen. And then there is feeling ashamed of being sick and not wanting to reach out for help, “hiya”.
Do you have any suggestions on how we should prevent a stroke?
It really comes down to a healthy diet and exercise. A healthy diet is probably the biggest component of that. I think that’s where Filipinos can really put a concerted effort to improve our health, by changing our diet.
My favorite lines:
1. Eat REAL food, not food coming out of a package or bag. Spend your time at the grocery at the produce section and forget the packaged food sections!
2. Mostly plants. I maintain a pretty varied diet but really eat mostly plants, fruits and veggies. Eat the rainbow of colors when it comes to produce, red tomatoes, oranges, yellow squash, green spinach, blueberries, purple beets for example.
3. Just enough! Life hack: use a smaller plate when you’re eating your meals to trick yourself into eating less!
And here is a tidbit I want all people to remember for stroke prevention. People often don’t know what a stroke is, so there’s the acronym FAST to help you out:
F face, any facial droop can be a sign of stroke
A arm, any weakness of arm
S speech, difficulty speaking, stuttering, not being able to express yourself
T time, time to call 911, for every minute of your stroke, you lose about 1.7 million brain cells
Photos courtesy of Antonio Moya