Guest Blog by Cathy Heffernan, LSS employment specialist

For us employment specialists, it is never easy to place someone with professional training and experience in labor-type jobs because they are unable to speak English and/or do not have American certifications. It particularly broke my heart when my client, Elisa (named changed), a Cuban oncologist and researcher in radiotherapy, took a position on the night shift of a factory where she made sandwiches. Her job was to add the bacon and cheese layers. Still, the job paid well, and she could continue studying English during the day. Most importantly, she was working toward bringing her two children from Cuba within the year.

I mentioned this to my own physician, Dr. Eduardo Balbona, who is of Cuban descent. He asked if he could meet her. He wanted to see if she could function as his assistant in his one-doctor practice. He was fully staffed, he said, but he might be able to make it work.

Elisa and I were both concerned about her level of English. While acceptable for conversation, it was unlikely to be enough to function at a professional level. I sent her the intake form that Dr. Balbona’s current assistant used to quiz the patients on their symptoms. I also found links to areas of Wikipedia where she could learn terminology used in a doctor’s office. We prepared for the meeting by practicing her explanation of her professional history in English. She also practiced questions she would ask a patient who came in with particular symptoms, like a rash. She was able to do both very well (we were both pleasantly surprised), but we were still worried that nerves would leave her tongue-tied.

We met Dr. Balbona in his Riverside office during the lunch hour. He greeted us warmly…in Spanish.  He said his office manager was picking up lunch for us from Tres Leches, a bistro that was as close as he could find to Cuban food in the neighborhood. As we moved to the break room, he pointed out the credentials on the wall, including his father’s own medical diploma from Cuba. He continued to speak Spanish throughout the interview, during which he explained his practice, enumerated his needs, and learned about her history. He told her that he was honored that she would consider working in his small office. She was equally honored to be asked. Her face lit up when he explained he could use another set of eyes when he did his hospital rounds.

They talked all through lunch, and he hired her on the spot. He said Elisa’s learning English would be a priority for everyone in his office. He would put her to work with his office manager, who doesn’t speak Spanish, to make sure it happened. By the time we left, he had showed her some of the electronic testing equipment (thermometer, blood pressure gauge, EKG machine) she would use and let her try it out. He measured her for her own lab coat. And finally, in case she arrived before the rest of the staff on her first day, he handed her the key to the office and taught her how to disarm the alarm.

We left, amazed and overwhelmed with gratitude.

Elisa was on cloud nine. She was most excited to Skype with her teenage son to tell him the news. She said he had been confused that she was working in a factory. When she told him she had an interview for a job with a doctor, he said, “Now that’s my mom!”

And what to say about Dr. Balbona, who through his generosity and respect, is giving Elisa back her life’s purpose? I suppose that I will continue to look for him in others—people whose hearts are big enough make room in their worlds for people who are longing for the opportunity to succeed.