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Visa Worries Intensify Pandemic Stress for Hospitalist Moms

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for all hospitalists, especially those who are parents of young children. For hospitalist moms who are also immigrants working on temporary H1-B visas, this stress is exacerbated. Though each story is unique, the underlying themes are the same: Worries over visa renewals, the immigration process, family members back home, and the risk of illness, job loss, and deportation.

Supporting the Family

Like all health care workers, Prasanna Palabindela, MD, a hospitalist at Jennie Stuart Health in Hopkinsville, Ky., has been worried about bringing COVID-19 home to her family, especially in the beginning. Her in-laws had just arrived from India for a visit in March 2020 when the pandemic began, everything was shut down, and her in-laws were forced to settle in for an unexpected months-long stay.

Along with her elderly in-laws, who also have chronic conditions, Palabindela had two small children to worry about – a then-5-month-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. “I was more worried about them than me,” she said. “I used to take showers before coming home and just do all precautions as much as I can. I’m glad that I did not bring COVID, so far, to the family.”

Once she could safely send her in-laws back to India, Palabindela began searching for a nanny. Daycare was out of the question because she didn’t want her children to be exposed to illness. After a long search, she found a nanny who could also help her son with virtual school. “It’s expensive, but still, my family and my family’s health is my priority,” she said.

Working on visas has caused multiple issues for Palabindela and her husband. After living in different states because of their jobs, her husband joined her in West Virginia for her residency and found a job there. When Palabindela took her current position, her husband had to quit his job in West Virginia and move with her to Kentucky for them to stay together. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a good fit for work in Kentucky, so the couple decided to put him on her visa so they wouldn’t have to live apart.

Now Palabindela is the family’s sole breadwinner. “That means if something happens to me, I always worry what’s going to happen with my family because legally, my husband cannot work. Technically, everyone is deported back to home,” she said. Not being able to work is hard for her husband too. “It’s just so much stress in the family because he worked for 11 years,” said Palabindela.

Through all the upheavals, Palabindela has had support from all sides. Her husband has been the biggest source. “He’s my backbone. Every time, he supported me in each and every aspect,” she said. Her parents and her brothers check in on her constantly to make sure she’s staying safe. Even the chief at her hospital has played a significant role, going to bat for his physicians to ensure their safety.

Palabindela credits everyone who works with COVID-19 patients as heroes. “The nurses, the physicians, the housekeeping, respiratory therapist, speech therapist, physical therapy … everybody has a role. Everybody is a hero,” she said. “Whoever is wearing a mask is a hero, too, because they are contributing to this community.”

Advocating for Immigration Reform

A lack of transparency and information in the beginning of the pandemic significantly contributed to anxiety, said Anuradha Amara, MD, MBBS, a hospitalist in Wilmington, Del. She felt that what was on the news and what was actually going on in the hospitals were quite different. Colleagues were getting sick, there wasn’t enough personal protective equipment, and planning went out the window. “It’s like a meteor hitting a place and then we start dealing with the aftermath, but we weren’t ready before,” Amara said. “We didn’t have a plan for a pandemic.”

Then there was the concern of either her or her husband, a cardiologist, getting sick and potentially losing their jobs and immigration status. “How am I going to go back to my country if I had to? What will happen to my family if I die? If I go on the ventilator? Those are the insecurities we found additional to the pandemic challenges we had,” Amara said.

Not being able to go see their family in India or have them come visit was difficult – “it was pretty bad up there,” said Amara. Fortunately, her family members in India remained safe, but there’s a very real uneasiness about returning should an emergency arise. “Should I go back and then take the risk of losing my job and losing my position and my kids are here, they’re going to school here. How do you decide that?” she asked.

One of the worst effects of her visa restrictions was not being able to help in New York when hospitals were so short-staffed, and the morgues were overflowing. “New York is 3 hours away from where I live, but I was in chains. I couldn’t help them because of these visa restrictions,” Amara said. During the emergency, the state allowed physicians from other states to practice without being licensed in New York, but immigrant physicians were not included. “Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t volunteer,” said Amara. “I have family in New York, and I was really worried. Out of compassion I wanted to help, but I couldn’t do anything.”

Before the pandemic, Amara joined in advocacy efforts for immigrant physicians through Physicians for American Healthcare Access (PAHA). “In uncertain times, like COVID, it gets worse that you’re challenged with everything on top of your health, your family, and you have to be worried about deportation,” she said. “We need to strengthen legislation. Nobody should suffer with immigration processes during an active pandemic or otherwise.”

In the United States, 28% of physicians are immigrants. Amara pointed out that these physicians go through years of expensive training with extensive background checks at every level, yet they’re classified as second preference (EB-2) workers. She believes that physicians as a group should be excluded from this category and allowed to automatically become citizens after 5 years of living in the United States and working in an underserved area.

There have been an estimated 15,000 unused green cards since 2005. And if Congress went back to 1992, there could be more than 220,000 previously unused green cards recaptured. These unused green cards are the basis behind bills H.R.2255 and S.1024, the Healthcare Workforce Resiliency Act, which has been championed by SHM and PAHA. “It will allow the frontline physicians, 15,000 of them, and 25,000 nurses, to obtain their permanent residency,” said Amara. “These are people who already applied for their permanent residencies and they’re still waiting.”

SHM has consistently advocated for the Act since it was first introduced, written multiple letters on the issue, and supported it both on and off Capitol Hill. The society says the legislation would be an “important first step toward addressing a critical shortage” in the U.S. health care system by “recognizing the vital role immigrant physicians and nurses are playing in the fight against COVID-19.”

Currently, SHM has a live action alert open for the reintroduced bill, and encourages members to contact their legislators and urge them to support the reintroduction of the Act by cosponsoring and working to pass the legislation

Amara encourages physicians to start engaging in advocacy efforts early. Though she didn’t begin participating until late in her career, she said being aware of and part of policies that affect medicine is important. If more physicians get involved, “there are so many things we can take care of,” said Amara. “The medical profession doesn’t have to be so difficult and so busy. There are ways we can make it better and I believe that. And obviously I’ll continue to work and advocate for the entire medical profession, their problems, their health and well-being, to prevent burnout.”

Making Time for Positivity and Self-care

Sandhya Tagaram, MD, a hospitalist at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., and her husband, also a hospitalist physician, had only ever read about pandemics in books. They certainly never expected to be in the middle of one. “That was a totally different level of anxiety to work as frontline physicians with two kids under 5 years and families away back home in India,” she said.

Tagaram and her husband work opposite shifts so that one of them is always home with their two young children. “Our schedules became more challenging when the pandemic started. Between both of our schedules and with minimal childcare facilities, we managed to strike a decent work-family balance, although we experience less vacation time together. We are fortunate to have an understanding work group,” said Tagaram.

Even before COVID-19, Tagaram found working on the temporary work visa challenging. “I think the pandemic has exposed the layer of uncertainty associated with it,” she said. “It’s incredibly stressful to imagine any minor turbulence that could alter our family and work lives. As a frontline physician mom, I take pride in raising my kids and taking care of my patients. We want to serve our communities and at the same time secure our families.”

Not being able to visit family back home and travel is exceedingly difficult. Tagaram said it would be helpful if there was a separate permanent residence pathway for physicians because they play a critical role in public health and they have been an integral part of the COVID-19 pandemic response team. A separate pathway could help keep their families secure and enable them to give their best to their communities.

Amid all the anxiety, Tagaram said she and her husband realized they could not keep living with so much pressure. As parents and as physicians, they did not want their stress to leak out and affect their ability and commitment to care for their children or their patients. They decided they needed to figure out how to be positive and constructive.

“We try some daily fun activities with the kids after returning home from work,” said Tagaram. They also formed a bubble group with two other physician families so the children could interact safely. She said that it’s critical that physicians take time for themselves. “We have to cultivate a serious hobby that helps to rejuvenate and calm our busy minds,” said Tagaram.

She makes time every day to exercise and to read at least a few pages from a good book. She is also learning Carnatic music along with one of her daughters. And every month since March 2020, she has journaled about her work and what she learned so her daughters can read it someday. “These things keep me jazzed up,” she said.

The pandemic has highlighted the fact that we are all part of one global community. “Although we hail from different backgrounds, we learned that we do have some common goals of being kind and supportive to each other and to give back to our communities. Hopefully we will continue this spirit,” said Tagaram. As a physician mother, “I feel it’s a privilege and honor to take care of my family and my community.”

Soldiering On in the COVID-19 War

The uncertainty everyone felt at the beginning of the pandemic was “very, very scary,” said Mamtha Balla, MD, MPH, a hospitalist and clinical assistant professor in northwest Ohio. “Initially, I was so involved in it and I felt like it was like a war, a COVID-19 war, and we are soldiers in that and trying to protect and do whatever we can.”

She and her husband, a geriatrician also working on an H-1B visa, have worked hard not to bring the virus home to their 2-year-old daughter. Going into 2021, the past 2 years have been “the most hectic and emotionally draining – and physically exhausting – years of my life,” said Balla.

The COVID-19 vaccine has helped reduce some pressure, but Balla is still concerned about the high risk to health care workers and the new COVID-19 strains coming out. “We are really not sure what we are dealing with and how the COVID will calm,” she said. “It is pretty challenging being a health care worker because not only are you responsible for your patients at the end of the day, but you are also responsible for your families.”

Initially in the United States from India on a student visa in 2008, Balla was placed on an H-1B visa when she started her residency. It was during this time that her mother was diagnosed with cancer and went through surgeries and chemotherapy. “She was pretty ill,” recalled Balla.

Despite the situation, Balla was afraid to go stay with her mother in case her visa application was rejected, and she couldn’t complete her third year of education. “I opted not to go to India at that time because I did not want to take a chance,” Balla said. “I have tears in my eyes because those are not easy moments, to withhold from seeing your parents, or to be in any other emergency where you cannot travel. That especially puts us at a higher risk emotionally and physically.”

She has not seen her parents in 2½ years. Between the very real possibility of not being able to get her visa stamp and the unpredictability of how other countries are dealing with COVID-19, Balla feels it is impossible to even think of going to visit. “Even if I go, what if something happens where my visa gets stuck, or the visa office is not open?” she said. If she could not get back to the United States as planned, she would have patients left behind here.

Recently, Balla did travel to India and her passport stamp did not come on time, so her husband had to come back to the United States by himself. She had to wait for her stamp for a couple more weeks before she could leave and, in the meantime, had to make arrangements at her hospital. “It is so much trauma,” she said.

There’s also the worry she has about getting sick or disabled and not being able to work anymore, resulting in deportation. “Is that what we are doing for people who are working like soldiers? Are we really treating them the correct way?” Balla asked.

Balla considers all health care workers to be soldiers in the COVID-19 war. As such, she believes the government should step up to make sure they are supporting and helping these immigrant physician-soldiers who are so necessary. She applauds France’s recent decision to grant citizenship to its frontline immigrant health care workers and feels that the same should be done in the United States. She filed her green card application in 2012, but she is nowhere close to getting it. (The backlog for employment-based green cards is more than 900,000 now.)

As people putting their own and their family’s lives at risk to care for patients with COVID-19, Balla and her husband have talked about moving to another country or even back to India. “I am a taxpayer; I am a good human being working for the community and for the job. This is my 13th year here. If I am not eligible [for citizenship] still, then I am not sure what else I have to do to prove myself,” she said. “I am owning United States citizens as my people, so please own us and help us out in this difficult scenario.”

This article originally appeared on The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

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