SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In her native country, Ghislaine Bola was a doctor. Here, in Maine, she’s not even qualified to work in an ambulance. Her medical degree doesn’t translate into the U.S. health care system. Plus, she doesn’t speak English well enough yet to communicate with most patients.

But a new course at Southern Maine Community College is helping Bola with both problems.

The ESOL-to-EMT program — short for English for speakers of other languages to emergency medical technicians — is the first of its kind in the state. It’s designed especially for new Mainers. The course teaches students to be language interpreters and state-certified EMTs. It also gives special language support as the students take the class in English.

The program began this semester when a local ambulance company told SMCC it needed bilingual EMTs. Scarborough based North East Mobile Health Services said the skill was vital given greater Portland’s growing and diverse immigrant population.

Sixteen students enrolled in the first class. They come from Burundi, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Cameroon and Honduras. Somali, Kirundi, Lingali, Farsi, French and Spanish are among the students’ native languages. They all speak English, as well.

There is no cost to the students who attend class, though they were rigorously screened for language skills and aptitude. The class was funded through a grant from the Maine Quality Centers and the John T. Gorman Foundation. The MQC provides customized workforce training grants to Maine employers. The training is delivered through SMCC and Maine’s other community colleges.

“Almost everybody here has some sort of [previous] medical training,” instructor Paul Froman said. “Four members of the course would have been physicians back home, but when they came to the states it didn’t mean anything in our medical field, unfortunately.”

Bola specialized in pathology while a doctor in the DRC. She’s been in the U.S. for a year and a half. She thinks she can become a doctor here, too. She sees this class as a first step. English is her fourth language.

“I have a barrier. The barrier here is the language. English is a barrier,” she said. “But I know that with enough English courses I will go through that barrier. … I wish to be a doctor, even if it will take more time, much money. I believe, with God’s help, I can make it here.”

Froman said the learning in his class goes both ways. He’s taking the opportunity to learn as much as he can.

“We have more and more immigrants coming. As a paramedic, I’m running into more of them as patients. So, to have that one-on-one, non-emergency interaction with the class, I couldn’t pass it up,” he said.

A few weeks back, a student in his regular EMT class asked if it was permissible, in Islamic culture, to expose a woman’s chest while performing CPR. Froman knew the answer was “yes” after asking the same question to one of his muslim students in the ESOL-to-EMT class.

“Before, I never would have had that knowledge,” he said.

North East Mobile Health Services has committed to granting job interviews to all students who successfully complete the program. It expects to hire 15 to 20 EMTs in the coming year. SMCC is offering the class again in the summer.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.