Languishing medical talents trapped by necessity

Dr. Duvier Gomez, who recently arrived from Cuba, loads his car with a delivery bag from the Pasta Factory. Gomez works as a driver on weekends to support his family while studying to get his medical title during the week.
Dr. Duvier Gomez, who recently arrived from Cuba, loads his car with a delivery bag from the Pasta Factory. Gomez works as a driver on weekends to support his family while studying to get his medical title during the week. El Nuevo Herald

Every weekend Duvier Gómez, a Cuban doctor specialized in gynecologic oncology, works serving food at a restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street in Miami.

The doctor, born in Las Villas province in Cuba, emigrated a year ago with his wife — also a doctor — and their daughter after the Cuban government, in 2012, stopped requiring special permits before health workers could leave the country. Now Gómez, 40, plans to obtain the U.S. validation of his medical degree to be able to work as a doctor, and so in his free time he studies and takes English night classes at a public school.

“I have a really good résumé which is of no value here,” Gómez says. “It’s a different country and different medicine.”

There are hundreds of immigrant doctors in South Florida who, like Gómez, work odd jobs that have no relation to their profession. Many seek jobs as medical assistants that pay between $10 and $12 an hour, or in other technical positions. Some study to be nurses.

Julio César Alfonso, president of Solidarity Without Borders (SSF by its Spanish-language acronym), a non-profit organization that helps health professionals to reinsert themselves in their fields, says that a newly arrived health professional must focus on other activities to survive.

“The country has welcomed a deluge of underutilized Cuban doctors who are working in cafeterias, restaurants, driving taxis or whatever they find,” Alfonso says, referring to the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, a special U.S. visa program designed for health professionals that the Cuban government sends out on missions to other countries.

There are 5,347 health professionals registered with SSF who plan to get back to their field. Of these, 2,616 are doctors, most of them in South Florida, where they have relatives. More than 90 percent are Cubans.

About a thousand health professionals attended a job fair last month at SSF headquarters in Hialeah.

“We’re trying to find jobs for them according to their medical profiles so that they don’t have to run around the city looking for work at places where they are seldom listened to,” Alfonso said.

Time to Study

Gómez, who receives financial support from his relatives, feels lucky to work only on weekends and devotes the rest of his time to study for the United States Medical License Exams (USMLE). “If you don’t have at least four full days a week to study,” he says, “you won’t make it.”

From Monday to Thursday, Gómez takes English night classes oriented toward the license exams at South Miami Senior High under a free Miami-Dade County Adult Education program.

Renán Amador, a Cuban doctor who teaches in the program, says that many don’t have time to study.

“There are doctors here who are cleaning floors, working at Publix, Sedano’s, Walmart, when they could be working as doctors in more decorous conditions given their educational level,” says Amador, who as a new arrival some time ago worked installing air-conditioners and in construction.

“We must help them to get back to what they really are — doctors,” adds Amador, who says that choices like working as medical assistants or studying to be nurses divert the doctors from their path.

That is the case of Lisandra Santos, a Cuban doctor who in 2013, after a mission of three years in Venezuela, applied for professional parole “to make progress,” she said.

What they paid her in Venezuela, about 1,000 bolivars a month, “was not enough to buy anything,” says the 28-year-old doctor.

To apply for the program, Santos crossed the Colombian border illegally, since her official passport issued by the Cuban government was only valid in Venezuela. When she arrived at Miami’s airport, Church World Service, a humanitarian agency that helps refugees, welcomed her.

“If you have where to stay, you stay in Florida. If not, you go to another state,” says Santos, who does not have relatives in the United States and lives in Cutler Bay at the home of a friend of her mother’s.

Monday through Friday, Santos works until 6 p.m. as a medical assistant at a North Miami clinic. Some nights, exhausted after an hour drive back to Cutler Bay, she meets for more than an hour to study with a group of friends, all of them doctors who have a day job and try to prepare for the license exams.

Obstruction by the Cuban Government

To be able to take the license exams, doctors who apply for professional parole must request from the Cuban government their degrees and transcripts in order to register with the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG).

To obtain the documents, the doctor must fill an application known as No. 186.

“To get that information from Cuba you have to pay, and Cuba is now also limiting it because they don’t want more doctors to leave,” Santos says.

To obtain the documents, translate and certify them, and apply for the first of four tests, Santos says she has spent more than $2,000.

Yet even work as a medical assistant is difficult to get for many doctors, says Gianella Asalde, a Peruvian doctor who works at a fast-food restaurant.

“In an interview for medical assistant I told them what I do for a living and I think they didn’t like the fact that I work part time at a fast-food restaurant,” says the 28-year-old doctor. “I wish I had more time to study, but I have to pay my bills. I cannot just do it full time,” she said.

In the three years she has been in the country, Asalde has known neurosurgeons or cardiovascular surgeons seeking work as medical assistants.

“It’s their only aspiration,” says the doctor, who said someone recommended she study to be a nurse.

That’s exactly what Elena Romero, a Cuban doctor who arrived in Miami 15 years ago, did. In an effort to find a way to make a living, she studied nursing at Florida International University, where she met many doctors from Cuba and elsewhere in similar situations.

The nursing career, says Romero, turns out to be relatively easy for immigrant doctors, since they already have a broad experience in medicine, and also because the university accepts a number of credits.

But Romero doesn’t believe she made the right decision.

“I recommend to all doctors I have met to avoid taking a detour to do other things,” says the 46-year-old doctor, who is now preparing for the license exams. “Look at all the time I have lost.”