Op-Ed: I’m an immigrant working to get vaccines to every American – but I could be doing so much more

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When the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in December, I was overcome with relief. I’d spent four months assisting COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials at a Houston-based research center. Finally, our vaccine would be on the market saving thousands of lives.

As the sole Spanish speaker on our team, my work is vital. I’m responsible for screening all Spanish-speaking participants — up to 40 percent of the people in our trials. But for much of the pandemic, I sat on the sidelines. I’m a Colombian immigrant with six years of medical school and experience practicing rural medicine, but systemic barriers have prevented me from serving Texans at the height of the crisis.

In 2015, Texas had 20 counties without a single physician — more counties than any other state in the nation. Nationally, there are roughly 27 open healthcare practitioner jobs for every unemployed worker, according to New American Economy. And yet some 165,000 foreign-trained immigrants with degrees in health care are unemployed or underemployed, according to the Migration Policy Institute. These professionals want to work. A recent survey by Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that has been coaching me in rebuilding my healthcare career in the U.S., found that 93 percent of immigrant healthcare professionals would be willing to serve on the frontlines of COVID if given the opportunity.

I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a child. I grew up in a small village in Colombia, only accessible by boat. We often had to make the 24-hour trip so my grandmother could receive medical attention in the city. Seeing my community suffer from the lack of medical care, I decided to help. I graduated from medical school in the city of Cali, and practiced in rural communities, learning how to prioritize needs and balance resources. I hoped to do the same thing here after immigrating to the U.S. in 2015 with my American husband. I’m willing to relocate and work at any clinic or hospital that needs me, something that’s common among immigrants in medicine. Eventually, I’d like to work in fighting infectious disease — and find ways to prevent global pandemics like this one from inflicting such heartbreak and devastation. 

But I’ve been unable to put this plan into action. I passed the U.S. medical licensing exam, but to qualify for a residency program here, I needed U.S. clinical experience, something most American medical students do during their rotations. Without any connections here, I began cold-calling doctors in Houston to see if I could rotate with them. I was finally able to complete a psychiatry rotation at a local medical school, even though psychiatry isn’t my desired field, and I volunteered at a cancer center. I even considered medical assistant jobs, which only require one to two years of training, but without a medical assistant license, I still didn’t qualify. I sent applications to residency programs this year – and I was thrilled to learn I was accepted into one this week — but others in my situation aren’t as lucky as they’re highly competitive and tend to favor U.S. medical school graduates.

I’m not afraid of hard work and I’m happy to do additional training, but there should be a clear, direct path for doctors who are trained abroad. A few states have issued emergency medical licenses for some foreign-born doctors during the pandemic. The Biden administration has also proposed giving temporary vaccine licenses to foreign-educated health care professionals to help meet demand. I applaud these efforts, but real reform can’t be temporary. Qualified foreign-born healthcare workers should have a route to licensure in any state experiencing shortages. It makes sense. If professionals with emergency licensure have helped save lives in states like New York, New Jersey, and Nevada — why can’t they do so in Texas? If they’re allowed to vaccinate people today, why not tomorrow? It’s frustrating to face so many barriers, especially given the need for people like me. I’ve wanted to respond to every governor who has called on doctors to help during the pandemic, but until I complete a residency program, my hands are tied.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to work in clinical trials and contribute in any way I can. In a few years, the shortage of doctors in the U.S. is expected to reach 90,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. By then, I’m hopeful I can answer the call to serve.

Sussy Dayana Obando Lara is a Colombian-trained physician assisting with COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials in Houston.

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