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 Dr. Balla.
The COVID-19 vaccine has helped reduce some pressure, but Dr. 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, Dr. 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 Dr. Balla.
Despite the situation, Dr. 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,” Dr. 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, Dr. 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, Dr. 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?” Dr. Balla asked.
Dr. 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 applaudsto 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 now.)
As people putting their own and their family’s lives at risk to care for patients with COVID-19, Dr. 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.”