When Vibha Gupta, MD, was a resident at Bellevue Hospital in New York, her university department chair said something that resonated long after Dr. Gupta began her position as an Emergency Medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente East Bay.
“He said, ‘I don’t expect you to just go out and get a job. I expect you to change the world,’” Dr. Gupta recalled.
Her mentor’s words went straight to Dr. Gupta’s heart, and they lived there as she worked at Bellevue, where she “took care of the sickest of the sick, the poorest of the poor.”
The words reverberated when Dr. Gupta joined Kaiser Permanente, a system which she said, “definitely feels like the most in line with my own ethics and how I want to practice.”
But it was in 2016 that social unrest turned the words into action.
No Immigrants No Spice
Dr. Gupta was deeply distressed by what was happening socially and politically at that time, including the news cycle with images of children in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border. The constant attacks and “slander of immigrants that had become mainstream” felt personal to Dr. Gupta, the daughter of immigrants from India.
One evening she watched a Trevor Noah skit in which he said that if you hate immigrants, you’re not allowed to eat their food: No tacos, pizza, or avocados. Maybe potatoes, but not even salt.
“When Trevor Noah said, ‘no immigrants, no spice,’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really powerful, succinct, and true’; it hit me in a deep way,” she said.
Dr. Gupta emailed Noah’s lawyers and got the OK to use the term to help immigrants with legal aid and advocacy.
First, she made T-shirts with the phrase No Immigrants No Spice and sold them online. Soon people were following her project on social media. From there No Immigrants No Spice, her nonprofit celebrating immigrants’ societal contributions, grew.
Today the nonprofit puts on large scale events such as the popular BBQ without Borders, an annual one-day festival fundraiser in Oakland that features immigrant chefs cooking regional BBQ and cultural experiences of dance, music, art, and film.
After taking a break due to the pandemic, last May’s event at the Oakland Museum of California with 600 attendees raised $12,000.
A partnership with the Unity Council, a nonprofit embedded in East Oakland and the Fruitvale, has resulted in $30,000 now distributing in micro grants to those barred from government support due to documentation status. The money can go toward rent, childcare, food, or other essentials.
Fueled by her patients
Dr. Gupta credits support from the volunteers who help her run No Immigrants No Spice and Kaiser Permanente, where her patients serve as an inspiration for her work outside the hospital.
“I see a lot of fear in the community,” she said. “One patient had a heart attack and wouldn’t come in for 2 weeks because he was so afraid when he saw police presence near the medical center and thought it was Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The delay in seeking care led to a significant loss of heart muscle — an example of how xenophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric is leading to morbidity and mortality.”
She encourages fellow clinicians to protect their patients’ immigration status by remembering that all patients are protected from disclosure of sensitive health information under HIPPA and the fourth amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizure), and to appropriately engage Kaiser Permanente’s professional interpreters rather than children or other family members already unduly burdened.
Dr. Gupta is now fully living her mentor’s charge to be a physician change-maker: “I think we need to harness our personal passion and infuse it into our work, so that keeps us motivated from both sides.”