My family is a family of givers.
We are doctors — cardiologists, orthodontists, pediatricians, pathologists. Though our areas of medical expertise differ, we have something important in common.
We are all immigrants. We are also Americans, and we are fighting alongside our native-born colleagues on the front lines to counter the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. We give because we want what’s best for our country — especially during the time of this pandemic.
My family’s immigration story began when my uncle immigrated to the United States from India in the 1960s. He sponsored me at the age of 11, with my sister and brother joining later. I was fortunate to immigrate as a child with a green card. Others wait decades, unable to attain status or contribute fully to this country.
After coming to the United States, I dedicated myself to becoming a doctor. It required 14 years of education and training after high school, with a significant amount of self-sacrifice involved to develop my expertise. I went on to join a cardiology practice in Lancaster, a lively and progressive city surrounded by rural farmland. But my role in the community is actively changing. My responsibilities have since multiplied.
On top of my cardiology practice, I was asked to work in the COVID-19 unit of a hospital treating infected patients. Many of the health care providers working alongside me are also immigrants or children of immigrants. In some way, I believe this helped prepare us for this incredibly difficult job. We’ve given ourselves to this country — and now we’re doing everything we can to give the best care possible to our community.
We estimated the hospital’s peak would be in May, so the staff took time to prepare for any contingency. Not knowing how many Lancaster County residents would become infected, we planned to work in teams so as to not cross-contaminate one another. When not working, I spent all my free time ramping up my knowledge base on critical care and pulmonary medicine to better serve our patients. I wanted to be ready for our patients and health systems, in case we became overwhelmed like Italy, Spain or New York City.
The implications to health care providers and their families are considerable. The availability of provider protective equipment was a concern. We desire to protect our families while maintaining our duty to our patients and society.
Every time I came home from the hospital, the two-week quarantine clock started again. I immediately washed the clothes I wore at the hospital and moved into a separate part of the house, away from my wife and children. I had to ensure that I was not contagious to my family.
Some of these burdens on health care systems can be lessened if we expand the pool of available doctors and nurses. To win this fight against the virus and meet the health care needs of our aging population, the country must permit more immigrant doctors to achieve permanent status. Many immigrant doctors can’t fully utilize their skills because they are here on a temporary visa and cannot obtain permanent status.
I have a cousin who is living in the United States on a temporary status. He and his wife are both doctors with visas, but without permanent status, despite being in America for a decade. The country needs them now more than ever, but our immigration system is set up in a way that it could take them many decades to achieve permanent status, if at all.
I believe when we come out on the other side of the pandemic, this will need to change. We must remain open to those wanting to help.
America may have some demagogues who try to undermine and blame immigrants for the ills of our society. They will create an “us versus them” mentality and push the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become more prevalent over the past few years.
Yet I strongly believe in the brotherhood of mankind to erase these divisions. The first step in doing so will be to fully welcome the givers, no matter where they’re from. America needs immigrants, especially immigrant health care providers.
Dr. Ajay Marwaha is a cardiologist in Lancaster.