Ingrid Pinzon, MD, FACP, was working as a medical assistant to a physician a decade ago when she heard the doctor prescribe ibuprofen to a woman who was in the latter stages of pregnancy. Dr. Pinzon was a doctor, having received her education and training in Colombia, but because she had emigrated to the United States and hadn’t yet completed her certification and training here, she was not recognized yet as an American physician.
But she knew that ibuprofen was not recommended during late-term pregnancy, and she was alarmed. She informed the physician of the mistake. The doctor headed to Google, Dr. Pinzon said, and called the patient to rescind the ibuprofen prescription. But she soon fired Dr. Pinzon, seemingly for having had the courage to speak up.
Dr. Pinzon, now medical director of care coordination at Emory Johns Creek Hospital in Atlanta, will describe her experience as an immigrant physician in the Society of Hospital Medicine Converge session: “A Walk in Our Shoes: Immigrant Physicians Sharing Their Stories.” She will be joined by Patricia O’Brien, MD, PhD, FAAP, a pediatric hospitalist in Tampa; Manpreet Malik, MD, a hospitalist at Emory University; and Benji Mathews, MD, SFHM, FACP, chief of hospital medicine at HealthPartners and associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
They will describe their struggles to find their way in the United States, along with the satisfaction of having hard work pay off with better lives for themselves and their families. And together, they’ll provide a variety of narratives that will show, contrary to how many Americans view immigrants, how the experiences of immigrants don’t follow the same path, but each one carves out a path of his or her own.
“The thrust of this is really storytelling, along with putting into context what we can do to help our hospitalist brothers and sisters who are immigrants, and shining the light on it,” Dr. O’Brien said.
Dr. Pinzon was working as a doctor for the Colombian government when she began receiving threats from soldiers in a guerrilla army, which didn’t agree with her alignment with the government. One day, a guerrilla soldier threatened her and her two daughters – aged 5 and 11 at the time – and accurately described her daughters’ whereabouts.
Less than a week later, she and her daughters flew from Bogota to the United States, never to return to Colombia.
“I dropped everything I had when I came here,” she said. An immigration attorney initially recommended that she marry an American man in order to stay in the United States. When Dr. Pinzon declined, they pursued political asylum, and she received it less than a year later.
For 3 years, she worked jobs as assistants in medical offices and in other jobs, well below her education level, as she guided her daughters through school and went through the U.S. medical certification process. She was besieged by doubt constantly, she said.
“I cried for 3 years in a row,” she said. “I wanted to go back to my country. I didn’t want to stay here.”
Finally, she did her medical residency between 2011 and 2014, and got a job with Emory. Her daughters are grown, and one is a doctor in general surgery residency. Dr. Pinzon said she is happy to care for patients, particularly those who are Spanish-speaking and struggle as she did. But she often encounters patients who don’t hide that they dislike her accent.
“I will mute the TV and I will say: ‘I have a strong accent and so I want to make sure communication is clear,’ ” she said. “We have to prove ourselves all of the time. I feel like I have to prove myself to my patients that I’m a good doctor all of the time.” American-born doctors, she added, “shouldn’t take for granted what they already have.”
Dr. O’Brien grew up in Ireland, but in the late 1980s, the country was in a serious recession, with unemployment close to 20%, and her father applied for residency in Canada and the United States. They were accepted in Canada first, and moved there in 1988. A few years later, her parents moved them to Florida.
“They knew in order for us to do well, we had to go abroad,” she said. Dr. O’Brien went to college, medical school and graduate school in Florida, and completed residency in Cincinnati. Feeling the tug of her birthplace, she moved back to Ireland and worked there for a couple years.
“I never really wanted to leave because it was my home,” she said. While there, she came to a new-found appreciation for the U.S. health care system. It’s true that, in Ireland, everyone is insured, but there long wait times – for example, up to 2 years for a sedated nonurgent MRI for a child. She once had to send a patient to Dublin in a taxi with a nurse because an ambulance was unavailable.
“After going back to Ireland, where – I honestly thought I was going to go back and settle there – I realized how visionary my parents were in moving us,” Dr. O’Brien said. “This system in the U.S., there are lot of things broken about it, but we have all the resources.”
She moved back to the United States in August 2016, during a period of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Nonetheless, Dr. O’Brien said she is happy to be here despite the lack of tolerance she sees in a minority of the U.S. population.
“Have a bit of sensitivity toward your provider. Maybe they speak with an accent. Maybe they don’t speak English perfectly. Maybe they have a different skin color. But their intention is good and it’s to help you and improve your health,” she said.