SOUTH PORTLAND — As a physician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jolly Ntirumenyerwa regularly stitched up wounded and bloody bodies, casualties of a long-running civil war that has killed several of her family members and led her to seek asylum here in Maine.
Now, Ntirumenyerwa, who lives in Portland, works two part-time jobs as a health care aide. Like many immigrants, her professional credentials aren’t recognized in the United States. But she dreams of returning to the front lines of medicine, where people need her skills the most.
“I used to work mostly in hospital emergency departments,” Ntirumenyerwa said. “I became a physician because I don’t like to see people sick or in pain. It’s part of my personality.”
Eager to return to her true calling, Ntirumenyerwa is taking a unique course at Southern Maine Community College that is training recent immigrants to become emergency medical technicians. Most of the 13 students in the course are former medical professionals who came from countries such as the Congo, Burundi, Cameroon and Iran. Most of them speak several languages, including French, Persian, Swahili and Italian.
The college developed the noncredit course to address a growing demand for EMTs across Maine and the difficulty that many municipal departments and private companies have in attracting qualified applicants. The college also recognized a ready pool of experienced candidates in Greater Portland’s growing immigrant community and a need for multilingual EMTs who can communicate with patients who have limited English skills.
“There’s a shortage of emergency responders in general,” said course instructor Paul Froman, 29, who is a Biddeford firefighter and paramedic.
“As more immigrants are coming, there are cultural differences that we’re hearing about,” Froman said. “Often, older adults in a family don’t speak English and rely on their children to be translators. That can be a challenge for us in the field.”
GROWING NEED, UNIQUE OFFERING
The college is offering the course, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, through its Emergency Medical Services/Paramedicine program. It partnered with North East Mobile Health Services, a Scarborough-based medical transportation provider, to launch the program with a $29,300 workforce development grant from the Maine Community College System and additional support from the John T. Gorman Foundation.
North East Mobile Health Services has committed to interviewing students who successfully complete the course. The company anticipates hiring 15 to 20 full-time EMTs or paramedics in the coming year.
“We’re happy to have another pool of potential applicants,” said Sarah Scott, spokeswoman for North East.
Froman said he teaches the immigrant students pretty much the same way he’s taught native-born students for the past eight years. While all of the students speak, read and write English to varying degrees, they also meet separately with a language instructor, who helps them understand complicated regulations, technical language and cultural differences.
“Because most of them are doctors or have some medical experience, they’ve seen a lot and they know what to expect,” Froman said. “And because they have medical backgrounds, they ask good questions. A lot of medical terminology stems from Greek, so it translates pretty easily.”
The students are taking the same timed quizzes and tests as their native-born counterparts and will receive a certificate if they pass the course, Froman said. Before they can work as an EMT in Maine, they must take a separate test to receive a state license.
PUTTING SKILLS TO WORK
Subjects covered during a recent class ranged from caring for victims of sexual assault to treating patients with hypoglycemia or ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. During the clinical portion, students practiced on CPR dummies and each other, asking questions and using basic medical equipment during role playing to determine the status of a patient’s health.
David Ngandu, a physician from the Congo, was partnered with Nicolas Niyonizigiye, a psychologist from Burundi, and Afsaneh Emami, a former nursing student from Iran.
For Ngandu, who is 33 and single, taking the EMT training course is a step toward future employment. He applied for asylum after arriving in Portland last September and he’s waiting for authorization to work, which could take several months. In the meantime, he’s volunteering as an interpreter in Portland public schools and training to become an EMT.
“I want to work in the medical field as soon as I am able,” Ngandu said.
He’s also plans to put his language skills to good use if he encounters fellow immigrants as an EMT. In addition to English, Ngandu speaks French, Swahili, Lingala, Chiluba and Russian, because he went to medical school in Russia.
“I know I can easily get along with patients who are immigrants,” Ngandu said. “They will know I am a person they can easily talk with.”
Ntirumenyerwa, 37, also speaks French, Lingala and Swahili. She came to the United States in 2012 with her mother, leaving her husband and six children behind in the Congo. Three of her children are adopted nieces and nephews whose parents were killed in the war. While it’s painful to be separated from her family, Ntirumenyerwa forges on, rebuilding her life here, anticipating the day when she is granted asylum.
“I want to work as an EMT, but I’d like to go higher, maybe become a physician’s assistant or a physician again,” she said, smiling. “I wish.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: