By Katie Powell
Exchange Visitor Cultural and Educational Affairs Program Manager, ECFMG
It was a beautiful fall day, 55 degrees and sunny, in our nation’s “Big Apple.” The sound of spectators and volunteers cheering rose from the sidewalks as more than 50,000 runners persevered along the city streets. It was a perfect setting to introduce exchange visitor physicians to the New York City (NYC) Marathon, an American tradition 48 years strong. We were gathered for a day of volunteerism and cross-cultural sharing with the aim of fostering international understanding in line with the spirit and intent of the J-1 visa program we represent.
ECFMG serves as the sole sponsor for nearly 11,000 foreign national physicians participating in the U.S. Department of State’s Exchange Visitor (J-1 Visa) Program to train in U.S. programs of graduate medical education. Each year, the U.S. Department of State (DoS) reaches out to program sponsors to plan an exchange-visitor volunteering event at the NYC Marathon. The idea is to bring exchange visitors from all different sponsorship categories—of which there are scholars, trainees, physicians, and more—together for a cross-cultural activity. It also gives exchange visitors the opportunity to connect with each other and engage in an exciting volunteer event supporting marathon runners from around the world.
In cooperation with the DoS, ECFMG invited more than a thousand currently sponsored exchange visitor (EV) physicians who live in the New York metropolitan area to volunteer at the marathon. We were excited to receive a number of EV physician registrations. Irene Anthony, EVSP Operations Manager, and I also made plans to attend. Registration was set up so that the EV physicians, Irene and I would all work together at the mile marker 23 water station.
The 2018 NYC Marathon took place on Sunday, November 4. My journey to the marathon began in Philadelphia, where I live and where ECFMG’s headquarters is located. Marathon organizers had prepared us for an action-packed day, so I loaded up a backpack of supplies and put on comfortable walking shoes. I took the Amtrak train to NYC’s Penn Station and then the NYC subway to marathon mile marker 23, located at 5th Avenue and 102nd Street in Manhattan. It was a beautiful spot, right next to Central Park and across the street from the Mount Sinai Hospital.
At mile marker 23, volunteers handed out Gatorade, water, and bananas to passing runners. I found my colleague Irene right away, and after volunteer check-in, got set up at the Gatorade station. Since I was working shift 2 in the afternoon, runners were already streaming by. Many of them had started running hours earlier. At mile 23, they were in the home stretch of their arduous 26.2-mile run across NYC’s five boroughs.
While Irene showed me the ropes from her time as a Shift 1 volunteer, she described her experience from that morning. Because runners wouldn’t reach mile marker 23 for several hours, they had time to prepare the drinks we would hand out to runners throughout the day. Tiny cups half-filled with Gatorade were stacked three levels high. As they waited for the runners to begin appearing, Irene had the exciting privilege of meeting and chatting with some of the volunteers around her. She met an EV physician, Miguel, and his wife Sofia, an exchange visitor research scholar. Miguel is a PGY-2 in surgery in Brooklyn. She also met Alp, an EV physician training in urology in Manhattan. She said that it was wonderful to meet a few of the physicians that we sponsor and that, to have the opportunity to connect with them in a day of service, was extremely gratifying.
After a few hours had passed, Irene said that the leading runners began to trickle by our station. Since I volunteered in the second shift, I didn’t get to see any of the runners at the front of the pack. I bet they were incredible to watch. But for me, the really powerful moments came at the end of the day. Some of the runners walked. Some of them limped. It was written all over their faces—they were tired, but determined. It was moving and inspiring. It was for these runners that I found myself really cheering, encouraging them towards the finish line. We said, “You’re almost there, keep going!” and “We believe in you!”
Volunteers came together as a community of exchange visitors and others to build up and serve these remarkable runners. I saw participants young and old, male and female, locals and runners from all corners of the world. The two most memorable runners for me were a man running with no shoes and a woman who looked to be at least 6 months pregnant! More than 50,000 runners from the United States and abroad finished the NYC Marathon that day, the world’s largest marathon.
In reflection of that day, I am moved by the similarities of the marathon runners and our exchange visitor physicians who achieve a spot in U.S. graduate medical training. For both groups, there are many more who want to participate than who earn a spot. They may have to overcome many personal and/or professional hurdles to reach the “starting line.” In both cases, the journey to the United States is just the beginning. Ahead is 26.2 miles or years of rigorous medical training, where each participant will surely learn more about themselves and their personal limits.
On November 4, 2018, Irene and I were proud to serve as volunteers at the NYC Marathon alongside exchange visitors. Every day, we are proud to serve the talented men and women who are ECFMG-sponsored exchange visitor physicians. We thank them for running their own “marathons” in clinical training to contribute to health care in the U.S. and in their home countries, and we’re rooting for them too.
I look forward to participating as a volunteer at next year’s NYC Marathon. Maybe I’ll see you there!