Florence Montecalvo came to terms with her gender identity after she was diagnosed with bone cancer in 7th grade. She underwent 18 rounds of chemotherapy and had 3 ribs removed. She identified as a gay man at that time, and after cancer came to realize she was not comfortable being a male.
“The cancer for me was like, I could die. I’d much rather die being happy with myself than being a person no one really knows,” Florence said from her home in Akron.
Now a 19-year-old University of Cincinnati student, she sought help from her doctors at Akron Children’s Hospital to begin her medical transition.
“By my junior year in high school, I had started HRT (hormone therapy). I knew this was what I wanted. I wanted to be happy,” she said.
Florence became a patient of Adolescent Medicine, which provides specialized services to LGBTQ+ children, teens and young adults. With a growing number of young people coming out about their gender identity and sexual orientation, the department in June 2019 launched the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine.
The center marks its first anniversary appropriately during Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.
The center started with 20 patients and has grown to 150, said medical director Dr. Crystal Cole.
It provides gender-affirming hormones, pubertal suppression, mental health care coordination, preventative health care, education and social supports for young people and their families.
“We’ve had tremendous growth in the last year,” Dr. Cole said. “It really illustrates the need in the community.”
Florence said she is lucky to have parents who support her.
“I had friends in high school who got kicked out of the house. One was gay, and one was transgender,” she said. “They had to take minimum wage jobs and figure out how to make it at a time they should have been children.”
Her concerns inspired a passion for housing rights, and led her to major in urban planning.
Young people who are transgender or gender nonconforming face higher risk of homelessness, as well as mental health problems and suicide. Acceptance at home is vital to their health and well-being, Dr. Cole said.
“We really want to engage the family and help the patient and family come together,” she said.
“Some parents are fearful and have a hard time understanding it. We can be a go-to place for parents, where they can express their fears and concerns. We can set them up with appropriate resources.”
Florence agrees that young people desperately need acceptance. She voices concern about discrimination and violence against transgender people, specifically those in the Black community.
“Finding your community, a community that’s safe, that will accept you and advocate for you, is really important,” she said.
Dr. Cole is pleased with the center’s progress during its first year. In November, it received the Best Supporting Organization Award at the Cleveland Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony. The center also received Gay Community Endowment Fund grants of $5,000 and $10,000 from the Akron Community Foundation. The grants help pay for the work of social worker Penny Daly.
The greatest reward, Dr. Cole said, is seeing overall health improvements in patients making the journey to transition.
“I see them living a full life they weren’t able to live before,” she said. “They just open up. They blossom. They are living the best version of themselves.”
Adolescent Medicine and the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine are located in the Considine Professional Building, 215 W. Bowery St. For an appointment, call 330-543-8538.
Akron Children’s Hospital adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Stephen Sondike, and social worker Penny Daly discuss the care the new center provides to transgender and LGBTQ+ youth. Originally aired on Fox 8 on July 29, 2019.
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