Immigration to the Rescue in a Maine Town Crisis

Here is a most interesting report from South Portland, Maine, of how immigrants with special skills are put to work filling critical voids in the area’s medical system, illustrating just another positive and essential direction for immigration in this country. 

Instructors at the Emergency Training Center at Southern Maine Community College demonstrating spinal immobilization techniques to a class of recent immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers training to be medical technicians.  Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE, March 27, 2017, for The New York Times

[The credentials of] . . . Jolly Ntirumenyerwa, a physician in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she worked in emergency medicine,  did not transfer when she moved to the United States in 2012, and she could  not work as a doctor. So, she took jobs as a health aide in an assisted living facility.

Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Now, thanks to an unusual program that is training immigrants to become emergency medical technicians, she is preparing to make better use of her medical background and, she hopes, work her way up to becoming a physician assistant if not, someday, a doctor.

“I put in a lot of years training to be a physician, and I don’t want to throw them away,” [she said.]

. . . [T]he program . . . is also helping to address some serious problems in Maine.

One is a shortage of E.M.T.s. Another is a shortage of a work force in general, particularly of young people who can help sustain the state economically as its population ages. Maine is the nation’s oldest state, with the highest median age and the highest concentration of baby boomers, and its birthrate is dropping; in 2016, just two of its 16 counties had more births than deaths.

Economists regard Maine’s rapidly aging population as a demographic tsunami that has severe implications for the state’s labor pool, health care system and overall socioeconomic well-being. But the state can grow, they say, with more international immigration.

Thanks mainly to a small influx of immigrants, the state’s population inched up last year by about 2,000 people over 2015 . . . . But the state recorded 1,300 more deaths than births, a downward trend in which Maine and West Virginia lead the nation. Like other graying states in New England, Maine is struggling to keep its young people living and working here.

This is where the E.M.T. program comes in.

. . . David Zahn, chairman of the global languages department at the community college, . . . said he basically put two and two together. Surveys showed that employers, especially municipal and private ambulance services, needed more E.M.T.s; other surveys showed that many immigrants in the Portland area are underemployed and have medical backgrounds.

David Ngandu was a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Often, he said, medical workers went without the proper equipment or supplies. Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

When the E.M.T. course for immigrants was announced, three times as many people applied as could be accommodated.

The program . . . illustrates what opportunities exist “when we recognize immigrants as part of our solution.”

Many of those opportunities are in health care. As residents live longer, the need for health care workers — and E.M.T.s — is only increasing.

. . . Mr. Russell said he was grateful to have an expanded pool of applicants, especially people who are multilingual (Ms. Ntirumenyerwa, for example, speaks French, Lingala and Swahili, in addition to English) and who can bridge cultural divides. “It’s a huge added benefit,” he said, when employees reflect the customers they are serving.

[T]he immigrants . . . must pass the same tests and meet the same requirements for licensing as American-born participants. But because of their medical backgrounds, he said, the immigrants “are informed, and you can get a lot deeper.”

. . . “Because of their extensive medical backgrounds, we’ll have people on ambulances who have a higher level of skill” than some other newly minted E.M.T.s, Mr. Zahn said.

And, he added, the program might help restore an underemployed immigrant’s sense of dignity.

“They are doctors,” he said. “And they’re cleaning toilets? We’re taking advantage of their skills and getting them back into their own arena.”

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