February 28th is internationally recognized as Rare Disease Day. My daughter, Chloe, was diagnosed with a rare and terminal disease at the age of two in a miraculously short time due to the brilliance of her neurologist. The neurologist was Canadian. Chloe’s only hope of survival was a bone marrow transplant, a risky and arduous procedure. We put our youngest child’s life in the hands of a capable and caring surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. She was Pakistani. Throughout the transplant there were long days of agony and fear as we awaited the outcome. Since her immune system was completely gone, neither she nor I could leave our tiny ICU room. The resident on the medical team brought me a Starbucks coffee each morning. He was Egyptian. When it became clear that Chloe’s chances for survival were non-existent, we met with the team to decide whether to try a risky and painful second transplant or let her go. I shared with the doctors that I believed deeply in medicine but also that, at the end of the day, my Christian faith informed me that it is God who decides how many days we have on this earth. I sensed that my decision resonated deeply with my Pakistani doctor’s faith as well. She was a Muslim.
After Chloe passed away, my husband and I decided that we would dedicate our lives to finding a cure to the disease that took her in such a horrific way. We have formed deep and meaningful relationships with two amazing researchers in whom we have the utmost confidence. One is Czech. Our medical advisory board is made up of three men we have met on our journey who are volunteering their time and energy with no compensation other than helping grieving parents realize their dream of finding a cure for metachromatic leukodystrophy. Two of the three are immigrants. One is a green card holder. At a recent Christmas party I bumped into a colleague of our Czech researcher. We chatted about the exciting research at the University of Minnesota and its potential to save lives. He was Syrian.
In thinking through the list of medical professionals I have met throughout my experiences with rare diseases I am struck with the truly international nature of medicine and I worry about the impact that the Trump administration’s recent travel ban could have on scientific collaboration. President Trump continues to craft policies that restrict the flow of foreigners to the United States. In addition to severely hindering the influx of researchers and medical professionals from the seven banned countries, his sweeping approach to immigration has the potential to discourage physicians from other countries such as India and Pakistan from pursuing medical careers in the United States. The Mayo Clinic alone employs eighty medical staff, physicians, or scholars with ties to the seven restricted countries and these individuals could face logistical nightmares should they seek to travel outside the United States. Medical conferences are held around the world and the ability to come in and out of the United States is of critical importance to researchers’ ability to collaborate on vital medical discoveries.
The image of immigrants evoked by the current administration is often one of free loaders and criminals here to take our jobs or worse. Trump’s protectionist policies benefit from the public’s perception that immigrants are low education, low wage drains on our economy. But the American medical community employs a significant number of immigrants. Often these physicians work in rural communities where there are already doctor shortages. According to the American Medical Association, one in every four physicians practicing in the United States is foreign born with a high percentage being from Muslim majority Pakistan. The consequences of a reduction in doctor supply from Pakistan and other countries that perceive the United States no longer welcomes foreigners would be very serious.
A large number of people reading this post will face a medical crisis at one point or another. I will tell you from experience that in that moment of life and death you will not care if the first (or middle) name of your doctor is “Hussein”. You will not be interested in an extended theological discussion about Islam. You will want the very best physician who will care for you with knowledge and compassion. Today in honor of Rare Disease Day I challenge the administration’s image of the foreigner. Today I remind every American that a large number of America’s immigrants wear white lab coats and have stethoscopes hanging around their necks.