As Ontario combats the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the crisis has exposed where critical help is needed most: long-term-care facilities. The virus has ravaged the province’s nursing homes, which have been largely understaffed and under-resourced since the pandemic began. But the doctors, nurses, and personal support workers (PSWs) risking their lives on the frontlines and doing all they can to alleviate the tragic conditions are heroes. And one of these heroes is a recent immigrant named Antanina Hulko.

Hulko moved to Canada in November 2019 from Belarus. Prior to her move, she spent 10 years as a general surgeon specialized in abdominal surgeries and emergency care. She arrived in Toronto on a student visa and enrolled at George Brown College’s post-graduate program in autism and behavioral science.

“I worked in one of the largest hospitals in Minsk, Belarus for the last six years,” says Hulko. “I’ve always followed international medical research and was interested in learning opportunities abroad. That’s how I ended up in Canada – to advance my knowledge.”

Healthcare is a heavily regulated sector in Canada – in Ontario, there are a total of 26 regulated health professions. Although Hulko is a fully trained and licensed surgeon back home, like many other internationally educated healthcare professionals (IEHPs), she cannot practice until she is re-licenced in Canada. In medicine, that means years of further schooling, examinations, and residency. The re-licensing process is an arduous and expensive one, with limited residency opportunities posing as a tremendous hurdle for IEHPs. A recent Statistics Canada report sheds light on the vast underutilization of healthcare professionals trained outside of Canada. In comparison to their Canadian-educated counterparts, many are either unemployed or underemployed in non-healthcare-related jobs. Underemployment means they are less likely to be working in jobs that match their full range of skills, experience, and education.

When COVID-19 hit the province, Hulko was finishing up her first semester of classes. Even though she could not practice as a doctor with her existing credentials and experience, she desperately missed serving patients in a healthcare setting. “I had the itch to be in a hospital setting,” says Hulko, “While I was busy studying and reading textbooks, I missed the rush of putting on personal protective gear, handling medical equipment, and coming to the aide of a patient.”

Hulko wanted to fight the pandemic to save as many Canadian lives as possible. The situation and needs were direst in long-term-care homes, so that is where she decided to help. She completed an application on a recruitment portal the Ontario Long Term Care Association had set up to urgently recruit healthcare professionals. Within days she was at work in a long-term care home in north Toronto, acting in the capacity of a personal support worker (PSW).

I would have liked nothing more than to help as a doctor, however, the licensing requirements don’t allow this,” say Hulko. “When the impact of the pandemic became clearer, it turned out that the pressing need was in long-term care. Even though working as a PSW is not my area of expertise, I had experience in fighting the swine flu back in Belarus. That experience taught me that responding to a pandemic requires all types of skills, regardless of specialization. It seemed natural that I could do the same here.”

Hulko is grateful that the federal and provincial government made it possible for IEHPs like herself to fill healthcare needs by including IEHPs (who are not currently registered to practice by a regulatory college) in their crisis response recruitment and by removing limitations on working hours for international students in essential services. But Canadians should be grateful as well that newcomers are stepping up to help. These once doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals offer extensive global experience in a range of settings and can provide linguistically and culturally relevant support to patients and their families.

What’s a typical day for Hulko?

“I work day shifts from 7:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. My main responsibilities are to provide basic care for elderly residents, including feeding, grooming and socially engaging them. As a medical professional, I’m at my best when I help my patients. PSWs do just that by improving the quality of life for the residents and providing dignified support.”

She goes to say that all PSWs have their temperatures taken before and after their shifts, and so far there have been adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in her particular workplace.

“Only through working there I could understand the issues that long-term-care homes are facing. Staff turnover is high due to exhaustion and cases of infection,” acknowledges Hulko.

Immigrant professionals like Hulko have and will continue to offer so much of thier skills to the healthcare system and overall economy. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how talented and courageous IEHPs have been stepping up for their new country. It has also revealed the great untapped talent pool of IEHPs who are sadly too often unemployed or underemployed.

“I know there are many IEHPs who would like to help – not just during the pandemic but in the recovery phase,” adds Hulko. “I hope this experience has shown how an agile and flexible response from the government in matching the needs with the available resources can benefit society. I hope this approach continues post-pandemic so that we can all do our part to help Canada recover.”

Regardless, Hulko is determined to practice medicine as a doctor in the future. “I would like to practice medicine in Canada, with its cutting-edge research and advanced medical facilities – it’s truly a dream.”

She understands that it won’t be easy and several things have to go her way, including being accepted for permanent residency and becoming fully licensed as a physician.

“I fully realize that it’s very challenging to navigate the licensing system, but I’m passionate and committed to see it till the end,” states Hulko, optimistically.