Dr. Julia Iafrate on the job. SUPPLIED

Dr. Julia Iafrate uses social media, press, to tell her story

It’s nice to receive some good news during a global pandemic.

New York City doctor Julia Iafrate, who was born and raised in Fonthill, was contacted just last week by immigration authorities in the US and told that her work permit was finally in the first stages of renewal. Previously, she had been told that she would be expelled from the country, a victim of President Donald Trump’s recent temporary suspension of visas for foreign nationals amid the pandemic.

Iafrate was featured on CBS News in early May, when she went public with her story of how her green card application had been denied by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), even as she was serving on the front lines against the coronavirus, and has been studying and working in the US since 2008. Even though her professional focus is not on infectious diseases, when the pandemic hit New York City and her hospital system asked for volunteers, Iafrate stepped up to work in intensive care units.

She had been working on obtaining an EB-2 visa — an employment-based green card for those with “advanced degrees or exceptional ability” — since 2019. In December, she received a request for further evidence to clarify her merit, which she submitted in March. In April, her application was formally denied.

Iafrate first made her plight known on social media after she posted a photo of herself with a message that said: “I am an immigrant and a doctor fighting COVID-19 on the front lines.”

Iafrate graduated from St. Alexander school in Fonthill and Notre Dame in Welland. She attended McMaster University in Hamilton for her undergraduate studies, culminating in a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology. She moved to the United States, where she earned her medical degree from the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. Thereafter she completed a residency in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic, followed by a Sports Medicine Fellowship at the University of Iowa.

During her fellowship, she worked as a team physician for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football, men’s basketball, and men’s and women’s gymnastics teams. Iafrate specializes in Sports and Dance Medicine, and currently works out of the Columbia University Medical Centre. Her primary clinical interests include all types of musculoskeletal injuries, college and professional-level sports coverage, dance medicine, diagnostic and interventional ultrasound-guided procedures, global health and nutrition, and resident teaching. She is also the team physician for the US ski and snowboard team.

Iafrate told the Voice that her waiver petition has been approved after being reopened by the USCIS. This does not yet mean that her green card is a slam-dunk, but it clears the first hurdle, which was the initial stumble.

The second phase is an adjustment of status which will likely still take weeks to complete. But the silver lining is that Iafrate can continue her important work as an attending physician in New York City hospitals.

Asked about the emotional toll on her medical colleagues during the pandemic, Iafrate said candidly, “To put it very bluntly, it’s exhausting work. And there are a lot of unknowns. In medicine, you pride yourself on knowing what to do next. That’s why you went to school for such a long period of time….you’re supposed to be the expert. And with COVID-19, we had ideas of what to do based on other viruses we had seen in the past, but nobody knew the precise answer. I think that’s frustrating for a bunch of Type A personalities like you see engaged in medicine.”

Safety supplies appear to be adequate at the present time, said Iafrate. She wears the same N-95 mask for the entire 12-hour shift because they are in limited supply, and a surgical mask on top of that. There was a shortage of surgical gowns for awhile.

Her life in New York City is pretty much all-consuming. Standard shifts at the hospital are normally at least 12 hours. Her family came to visit frequently prior to the border closures. While waiting on her green card, Iafrate actually hasn’t been able to leave the country since October.

“I couldn’t go home for Christmas,” she said.

The Big Apple clearly appeals to Iafrate.

“New Yorkers have a reputation for being tough, and rough around the edges, and not really caring about anyone but themselves. But I think they’re some of the most caring people that I’ve ever worked with. They mind their own business, yes, but they also care about what other people need,” said Iafrate.

“After 9/11, we saw how strong the people of New York City are. And it’s the same thing with this pandemic. The attitude is that we’re going to get through this together. The support for us in the medical field has been incredible.”

Iafrate laughed when she reflected on news items of people in the suburbs that are complaining that self-isolation is like being under house arrest. “At least they have a backyard. Most people in New York City don’t have backyards,” she said.

Asked about the situation closer to home, Iafrate responded, “I know that the government in Ontario is slowly opening things up right now, same as in New York. But people have to be really careful, because I think we might be rushing a little too quickly. There is probably going be a second wave. It’s just a matter of how big the wave will be.”

Iafrate stressed the importance of self-isolating if a person exhibits symptoms of coronavirus, but noted that one can be asymptomatic and still have the virus, and still be infectious.

“Ebola was more deadly. It killed people very quickly. COVID-19 is less deadly, but it still has the potential to infect and kill a lot of people, especially those with compromised immune systems. Symptoms can take a long time to appear. It’s important not to let your guard down,” she said.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is going to be around for a while, likely into 2021, and maybe beyond that, said Iafrate. Development of a vaccine would obviously be a massive game-changer. The future will be different, though, especially in how we live and socially interact.

“Handshakes are history,” said Iafrate. “I think we’re I think we’re going to start bowing or nodding at each other, and there’s not going to be a lot of touching. Not anytime soon.”

Iafrate is not the only one in her family helping out during the pandemic. Her brother Mike Iafrate is also supporting the cause as president of Niagara Water-Jet in St. Catharines, which provides precision cutting and custom component manufacturing with industrial, automotive, and aerospace applications. He has teamed up with one of his company’s partners to produce 10,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (clear, flexible plastic face shields) which will be used by healthcare workers across Ontario.

“Nobody caring for the sick should go without the necessary protective equipment,” said Mike Iafrate.

“At Niagara WaterJet, we are racing against the clock to do our part.”