Doctors kept from doctoring
- Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
- Star Tribune
- June 27, 2009 - 5:53 PM
Mimi Oo pushes her cart of color-coded test tubes down the fourth-floor hall of St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul. It's 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, and Oo, a phlebotomist wearing a white lab coat and her teenage daughter's white tennies, has been on duty for four hours.
"Sorry," Oo says, as she gently guides a needle into the arm of a 65-year-old man suffering from chest pains. "You're a tough cookie."
"You're doing fine," he tells her. "You're the first one to get it in the first time."
Oo smiles, but resists the urge to share the truth behind her skillful touch and easy bedside manner. Although Oo works weekends drawing blood and weekdays as a medical interpreter, she is a fully trained doctor.
After completing medical school in her home country of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Oo ran a thriving private practice for seven years. Later, she worked as a United Nations Development Program volunteer and World Health Organization consultant in Uganda, trained in tropical medicine.
"I don't mind drawing blood," said Oo, the oldest of five siblings born to college-educated parents who fled to the United States during political unrest in the 1980s. "I try to do my job well. But if I were able to do more, I would like to do more."
Oo and about 100 foreign-trained doctors in Minnesota, most of them refugees with permanent U.S. residency status, cannot practice medicine in Minnesota. Some lack understanding of licensing protocols, or they fulfilled course work only to find residency doors shut. Others face language or financial barriers. Some, like Oo, admit age is not on their side.
"One option is returning to [an American] medical school for four more years and another three years of residency," Oo, 55, said with a laugh. "By the time I'm done, I'd retire."
Wilhelmina Holder takes a more serious tone. "It's unjust," said Holder, a doctor in Liberia who now directs the St. Paul-based Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE). Holder came to Minnesota more than 20 years ago "to save my life" after her father was killed.
"We have to find a way out. Some physicians have become depressed," she said, recalling one dentist who killed himself after being unable to secure a license to practice. "They lose all their dreams. They can't go back home because it is not safe."
But helping these doctors regain their dignity and status is not the most compelling reason to act. A record number of immigrants are arriving in Minnesota, most from Africa and Asia, placing the state in the top 20 for immigrant population growth. In 2005, more immigrants arrived in Minnesota than in any of the previous 25 years, according to the state demographer's office.
These doctors could be on the front lines of new arrivals' health care, speaking their languages, understanding their cultures, skilled in treating diseases not typically seen here.
"These doctors are here to stay, to be part of the community," said Stephen Nguyagwa, program coordinator of the African and American Friendship Association for Cooperation and Development. His organization collaborates with WISE to run the Foreign Trained Health Professionals program. "Their clinical skills are good," he said. "They are just like any physician elsewhere."
The doctor is (almost) in
Nguyagwa was in East Lansing, Mich., recently for a conference sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Refugee Resettlement. The two-day conference discussed ways to re-certify doctors new to America. More than 170 people attended from 30 states, with Minnesota "very well-represented," he said.
Nguyagwa was buoyed by news that four foreign medical students living in the Twin Cities have been accepted into residency programs; two at the University of Minnesota and two outside the state.
Nearer the geriatricians
Oo accepts that her future looks different. "All these young, fresh graduates aspire to be neurosurgeons, cardiologists," she said wistfully. "But there is a lack of doctors in family medicine, rural health, geriatrics. They should look at this pool of doctors who are not being used. We're nearer the age of the geriatrician population."
After medical school, Oo did her residency at Rangoon General Hospital, then worked for five years in Uganda in general medicine. Many of her patients had malaria or AIDS.
Today, Oo splits her time between drawing blood, translating for patients speaking Burmese and Hindi, and serving as a personal care attendant for her 18-year-old son, who has autism. She met her husband of 20 years, Zaw Lin, a hearing aid technician, when sewing up his finger in her clinic.
Oo checks her BlackBerry-like device and heads to another hospital room. It's the dozenth time she'll draw blood this particular morning, but she remains grateful for the chance to serve "in any capacity." She is considering moving into autism research, or maybe she'll just stay put.
"It's a job, and I like helping others," Oo said. "You're a president one day, and the next day you're not. This is life."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2013 Star Tribune