Physician Scarlett Gard’s passion for humanitarian work took her to India and Bangladesh.
After finishing her medical training, she set off for a place she knew had a diverse population in need of doctors: western Kansas.
Gard came to the meatpacking town of Garden City to work with Somali immigrants – a population that has become the cornerstone of an effort by a growing network of rural hospitals to entice doctors to practice in sparsely populated hamlets across western Kansas.
The innovative recruiting effort grew out of the realization that many millennials graduating from medical schools have a desire for international medical service. It also comes amid the backdrop of President Trump’s attempts to restrict the influx of refugees into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim nations, including Somalia.
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“It just kind of drew me because it surprised me that this existed in southwest Kansas,” said Gard, who moved to Garden City in September after finishing her medical residency in Wichita. “I don’t think I saw myself necessarily staying here until I realized that the same things I wanted to do – go to underserved people of different cultures – I assumed I would have to go overseas to do that, and I clearly don’t.”
The hospitals are encouraging doctors like Gard to come work with immigrant populations and learn a language and culture before heading overseas. They also offer generous time off for medical trips abroad.
The doctors are finding that many people from the oppressed and war-torn countries where they want to work are in western Kansas, said Benjamin Anderson, an administrator for the Kearney County Hospital in Lakin who is behind the recruiting effort.
“So what is normally a deterrent for recruiting traditional candidates has become a cornerstone of this recruiting effort,” Anderson said, adding that all local residents – not just immigrants – benefit from having highly trained doctors working there.
So far, 25 doctors have joined the loose network of physicians working in medical facilities in Garden City, Lakin, Santana, Scott City, Ashland, Minneola, Tribune and Leoti, Anderson said. The group is working to solidify that arrangement by forming a nonprofit organization to help support their medical work overseas and in rural Kansas.
Although Trump’s ban on travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen isn’t expected to affect the hospitals’ recruiting efforts, it has generated concern among Garden City’s Somali immigrants. A judge put the ban on hold, but two Somali refugees who had been living in Garden City haven’t been able to come back after traveling to their home country.
Refugees also worry about how long it will be before they see their loved ones who had been expected to come to the U.S., said Ifrah Ahmed, a 27-year-old Somali immigrant.
Ahmed said the doctors’ work has helped residents see that people still want to help them.
“It is a way to see that in spite of everything that is going on, there is still good out there,” Ahmed said. “There are still people who believe in us, there are people that want the best for us.”
Ahmed changed her shift at the meatpacking plant where she works as a translator so she could volunteer at a walk-in clinic at a Somali apartment complex. Gard is the volunteer medical director of the clinic, which opened Saturday and is staffed by volunteer doctors who’ve dubbed it New Hope Together.
The Tyson Foods plant outside Garden City has long been a magnet for various immigrant populations, transforming the western Kansas city into a multicultural haven of about 27,000 people where more than a dozen languages are spoken.
The hundreds of Somali refugees who began settling here around 2008 are just the latest wave. Other immigrant groups who have come to western Kansas for jobs in meatpacking plants or on farms include Hispanics and people who speak low German.
The doctors have become so important to the Somalis that when 27-year-old Mursal Naleye learned that Anderson and two physicians were going to Africa in November, he felt obligated to join them. Naleye, who is now a U.S. citizen, bought his own plane ticket so he could show them the ropes and, if necessary, protect them from any problems.
For the doctors, the work is a calling.
“It is fulfilling for a lot of us as physicians to realize that we can make a big difference for these people coming from all over the world right here in Garden City, which is not something you would expect in rural Kansas,” said John Birky, who helped put in the new walk-in clinic.
Anderson got the idea to recruit doctors interested in international work from the Via Christi Health International Family Medicine Fellowship in Wichita. Similar recruiting efforts by hospitals in Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee offer time off for overseas medical work.
It’s been a boon to hospitals in western Kansas that once struggled to hire doctors.
“In the past, we had to wait a long amount of time to be seen,” said Kearney County Commissioner Shannon McCormick. “We had to travel to be seen, to get health care that now we can get easily.”