Last winter, I found myself in a hospital intensive care unit for three days. I was hooked up to all kinds of boxes, bags and bleeping machines. Stuck in the bed, I watched a lot of bad TV. The people who came into my room became my only contact with the human world. At least half were immigrants in jobs ranging from menial to super-duper specialist. Nearly all the hospital staff was caring, but somehow the foreign-born workers tended to form a more intimate connection.
What was it? The answer, perhaps, is that most came from less prosperous parts of the world where physically helping one another — as opposed to clicking an app for a service — is an expected part of life. They didn’t just drop the lunch tray for the woman in room 402 but rather interacted on a personal level. Enjoy your lunch. Is there anything else you need? Is the tray where you want it? I know they kept it up even though many of the patients they dealt with were selfish and dismissive of foreigners.
Before going on, let me make clear that I support an orderly immigration system and respect for our laws. And I generally support reforms that give heavier weight to skilled immigrants.
However, we must not undervalue qualities not necessarily associated with “skills.” I refer to poor people brimming with energy and kindness.
Americans will increasingly depend on such immigrants as an aging population requires more medical attention. The Institute of Medicine projects we will need 3.5 million additional health care workers by 2030.
Demand will rise for 650,000 additional workers to do “direct care,” according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. These are the home health and personal care aides and nurses who will enable more older Americans to live at home, where most of them say they prefer to be.
A visit to any sizable hospital shows how reliant today’s health care system is on a mixture of native and foreign-born. I recall two female nurses, really nice natives of Indiana and North Carolina, and a male nurse from Brooklyn. Another was an American-born Latina whose parents had immigrated to Florida. Those were the native-born Americans.
The head doctor at the ICU was from Russia. He would come by to explain my interesting case, critically low sodium, to residents hailing from all over. (By the way, sodium deficiency becomes a serious and common problem during heat waves. Be sure to hydrate.)
The doctor never treated me with detachment. I was more than a body with bad numbers that needed fixing. He would squeeze my hands as reassurance.
Other workers cleaning rooms or wheeling oxygen tanks out of elevators had voices from the Caribbean. The woman from food services came from Ecuador. She took my meal orders with four-fork professionalism. As we got to know each other, she became especially attentive. It took her a while to warm up, perhaps because — as I’ve noted — many patients treat workers, especially foreign ones, as unimportant servants.
I’ll never forget the man with one of the least glamorous jobs in the place: collecting plastic bags of garbage at night. It was 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and I was feeling a bit lonely reading on my lighted Kindle. The man silently emptied my trash can and, upon seeking me sitting in the dark, said in an African accent, “I hope you feel better very soon.” I almost cried.
America needs people with technical skills, that’s true. But some virtues cannot be measured by standardized tests. In reforming our immigration program, let’s recognize that humanity is another quality that often seems in short supply.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.