ANNAPOLIS – Yelitze Medina spent eight years as a nurse for the Venezuelan air force. In 2001, when she moved to the United States with her husband, she never expected it would take seven years to obtain the license she needed to continue in nursing.
Medina credits the Latino Health Initiative, which helps foreign-trained nurses learn critical English language skills and American medical standards, with getting her the license she needed. She is now an emergency room nurse at Washington Adventist Hospital.
“Before the program I was scared I couldn’t do the nursing here. But, oh, my goodness, they showed me to be motivated and not give up on what I wanted,” Medina said. “I love to help the people, and now I can finally do what I love here.”
Medina is one of 11 to earn a nursing license in conjunction with the Latino Health Initiative of Montgomery County.
The program, which took its first class of 25 in 2005, aims to combat the nursing shortage in Maryland by utilizing the already-trained immigrant workforce. Maryland is projected to have a shortfall of 17,000 nurses by 2012.
The nursing program has been renamed the Licensure of Foreign-Trained Nursing Professionals Program. Starting in December it will begin teaching foreign-trained nurses of all nationalities.
Program participants take English language and nursing refresher courses at Montgomery College and are later placed as nurses-in-training at Holy Cross or Washington Adventist hospitals. The program is intended to be completed in two years, but each nurse receives counseling to design a personalized plan.
The program pays for most of the training costs for the nurses.
“You can see their eyes light up in the classroom, and they’re saying to their classmates or to me that they never thought it would happen, but now they see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Linda Jennings, who teaches in the English language component of the program at Montgomery College.
Now, thanks to a grant from the Maryland Hospital Association, the amount of which is still in negotiation, the nursing program hopes to be able to open at additional locations, including one in Baltimore. Program manager Sonia Mora, said the program may also expand to other foreign-trained allied health professionals, such as nurse practitioners.
Until Medina found the nursing program, she studied English on her own and made two unsuccessful attempts at passing the licensing exam. Many other immigrants with specialized training find themselves working in jobs they’re overqualified for because of language constraints or difficulties understanding the requirements of United States licensing systems.
In August, the Urban Institute released a study reporting that 40 percent of Maryland’s immigrants from Latin America and Africa with college degrees work in unskilled professions.
The study also said 43 percent of Maryland’s immigrant workforce has a four-year college degree, compared to 36 percent of native Marylanders.
In addition to helping bridge the gap in unfilled nursing positions, the program aims to incorporate a more diverse workforce into Maryland’s hospitals.
Hospitals lacking diverse staffs are likely to struggle with the cultural and linguistic barriers to providing quality health care. These barriers often lead to inefficient treatment, poor communication and patient dissatisfaction, said Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association at a summit on Maryland health care disparities.
Medina testifies to this firsthand. She described a suicidal Latino patient at Washington Adventist Hospital who was brought to her attention because she was one of the few nurses who could communicate with him.
After hearing how the non-Latino staff at the hospital was not able to understand him, Medina said she spent time simply holding a general conversation with the patient in Spanish. The patient’s spirits lifted, and he stopped talking about suicide.
Medina said she’s had many similar experiences with Latino patients ranging from the homeless to Latino women battling post partum depression.
“It’s really sad the help that the Latin American population in the hospitals need,” said Medina. “That’s one of the reasons that motivates me to continue with this beautiful job.”