‘I love this place. I love what it’s doing for the people of South Carolina.’

As a new graduate of the College of Charleston volunteering at the MUSC Children’s Hospital, Cristina Reyes Smith met a little girl in a shoulder cast who had no interest in the cheerful volunteer but only wanted to see her OT.

Dr. Smith, third from left, joins colleagues Adrienne Edge, CHP associate director of student diversity and community outreach;  Paula Jones, South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium (AHEC) health careers program coordinator; Angelica Christie, AHEC director of health careers programs; Dr. Willette Burnham-Williams, MUSC university chief diversity officer; and Naomi Sampson, CHP director of executive operations and project management.

“I knew I wanted to do something in health care, but I had no idea what an OT was,” Dr. Smith said. “When I left that day, I started reading about the profession of occupational therapy, and it sounded too good to be true.”

She began the occupational therapy program in MUSC’s College of Health Professions in 2004. From her first year as a student through her current role today as a faculty member with a private practice, Dr. Smith not only has defined what she wants to do in health care but what she wants for her alma mater, her community and the industry at large to accomplish. She recently made a planned gift to support the college through her estate to support those goals.

“I love this place,” she said. “I love what it’s doing for the people of South Carolina. We have a long way to go, in terms of how to best meet the needs of our communities, but we certainly are making good progress.”

As a first-year occupational therapy student preparing to attend a prestigious gala as a scholarship recipient, she passed by a pickup truck in downtown Charleston with Latino men crowding into the flatbed for day labor. “The disparity between their situation and mine became very significant to me,” Dr. Smith said. “I wanted to be a part of addressing that disparity and addressing access to care.”

Dr. Smith with her family: (left to right) son Solomon; husband, Bryan; son Aidan; and daughter, Elena.

Her family moved to a military base near Charleston from Puerto Rico when she was 4 years old. Because her father and grandfathers all served in the military, her family never lacked access to quality health care.

Dr. Smith has a history of severe asthma, and the concepts of access and cultural barriers to health care became a personal concern for the first time during an undergraduate trip to France. She suffered the most severe asthma attack of her life while in the countryside of Provence and, with the nearest hospital hours away, she relied on interpreters to access a physician who could come to her.

With that experience guiding her and the mental picture of the men in the pickup truck inspiring her, she served as founding president of the MUSC Alliance for Hispanic Health within her first year as an MUSC student. The interprofessional collaborative of students, faculty and staff joined under a shared goal of improving health-care access for the local Hispanic community; it remains active more than a decade later. 

Now an assistant professor at MUSC, Dr. Smith works to shape her students into compassionate, culturally literate and sensitive leaders. “My philosophy is that our students are largely millennials who have access to information from around the world literally in their pockets,” she said. “What they don’t have is access to live experts and personal experiences in community-based health care. I tell my students, ‘When your heart is broken for a patient or for a community, I want you to feel like you have the skill set and tools to address the issues for positive change.’”

In recent months Dr. Smith accepted a new position as the College of Health Professions' diversity liaison. She also serves as faculty advisor to the MUSC Student Diversity Leadership Council. Off campus, she operates a private practice serving the greater Charleston and surrounding rural communities called Vida Bella Services, which provides physical and occupational therapy to Spanish-speaking children and others with limited access to care as far as Walterboro and St. George. And at home she’s a wife and also a mother to three young children.

Dr. James Zoller, interim dean at the College of Health Professions, said Dr. Smith brings an infectious energy to her work at the college. “She gets everyone enthused about the same thing, and it makes it so much more believable when you’re talking to someone who is clearly committed and passionate,” he said.

Dr. Smith made her planned gift to the dean’s fund, a discretionary account designed to serve the college’s most pressing needs. “It allows us to be flexible in directing resources to where need is at the time,” Dr. Zoller said. “It also is sort of a tacit expression of confidence in the college that it’s going to be used in a valuable and meaningful way.”

Dr. Smith said she has considered designating a portion of her gifts to support underrepresented minorities through scholarships or other programs. But she hopes, within her lifetime, that those needs will not be as imperative as they are now.