Sister physicians share passion for local and global health equity

Trina and Nicole Salva are both OB/GYNs in Philadelphia whose outreach extends to underserved communities in the city, and to the Philippines—their family’s birthplace.

Growing up in their hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, it was not uncommon for Catherine “Trina” and Nicole Salva to hear their parents answering phone calls all through the night or see them being approached by people with questions about medications or ailments while out running errands. This was part of the daily routine as children of independent practitioners.

“They had a really special role in our community,” says Trina.

Four medical personnel smiling at a desk in a clinic in the Philippines.
Trina (second from left) and Nicole (right) volunteering with two nurses at the JR Borja General Hospital in the Philippines in 2019. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Watching these thoughtful interactions led the Salva sisters to pursue their own careers in medicine. Now, they’re both OB-GYN physicians at Penn Medicine—Trina Salva, an associate professor of clinical OB-GYN, joined the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) in 2006, and Nicole Salva, a physician in Penn OB-GYN – Midwifery Care, joined Pennsylvania Hospital (PAH) in 2010.

Their parents, born and raised in the Philippines, came to the United States to complete their residencies at hospitals in Philadelphia. Their father, a family medicine physician, and mother, an OB-GYN physician, eventually moved to Delaware and established their own private practices. Watching their mother as an OB-GYN especially motivated their career paths. Trina described her fascination with the “miracle of childbirth” and being able to help patients build their families, while Nicole appreciated the longevity in patient relationships.

When Nicole was a resident at PAH, she volunteered with Trina at Penn’s Latina Community Health Services. The clinic, partnered with the ambulatory health care clinic Puentes de Salud, provides comprehensive prenatal and obstetrical care for the city’s Latinx population.

“A lot of interest in volunteering at the clinic stemmed from my curiosity in finding resources to better serve this particular population,” says Nicole. “I liked the idea of building relationships with the patients, not just asking about their diagnoses, but asking how they were doing emotionally and listening to their needs.”

Trina was drawn to the clinic from studying Spanish literature in college and training at a medical school with a predominantly Dominican patient population. Prior to Penn, in 1995, Trina had also participated in AmeriCorps, where she lived on the Arizona-Mexico border for a year and provided labor and delivery support for uninsured and undocumented women, along with offering educational sessions on reproductive health to teenage girls.

It was from this experience that Trina had an instant connection to HUP’s Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s Health. Dickens, Penn’s first African-American woman professor in OB-GYN, was an advocate for preventive health for underserved populations, granting access to resources like educational classes and family planning assistance to teenage girls of color in Philadelphia.

In addition to serving the Philadelphia region, the sisters have expanded their advocacy to the Philippines—their family’s birthplace. In 2019, they joined a group of doctors and nurses to travel to the city of Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines to provide surgical care for women with limited access to OB-GYN services.

This story is by Julie Wood. Read more at Penn Medicine News.