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Altaf Saadi

Massachusetts General Hospital

When she volunteered as a physician examining asylum-seekers for signs of trauma, Altaf Saadi didn’t know any other neurologists who did that sort of work. That seemed like a problem. If the people in charge of forensic evaluations weren’t attentive to signs of traumatic brain injury, would they find it? She found it all the time, in survivors of intimate partner violence and in those fleeing gangs. And that clinical evidence could be important in their legal cases.

Her parents had themselves fled persecution in Iraq and moved to Iran, then Canada, and finally settling in California. As a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, she’s devoted herself to trying to improve care for families like her own.

Sometimes, that takes place in immigration detention centers, where she’s examined dozens of patients and found repeated evidence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement withholding care. She’s seen a woman who did not receive thyroid drugs, in spite of a medical team’s explicit instructions, and had to be hospitalized.

She’s seen a man whose schizophrenia had been well-controlled — outside of detention, he was working and flourishing — but who experienced hallucinations after ICE cut off his medication, and then switched it to something less effective, and who repeatedly attempted suicide.

“There’s very limited data that ICE or other agencies release about this population, and yet this is a population that’s in the news cycle constantly.”

“There’s very limited data that ICE or other agencies release about this population, and yet this is a population that’s in the news cycle constantly,” Saadi said.

She’s working to address subtler disparities, too, collecting interviews on how clinics can make immigrants and refugees feel welcome and safe seeking care, knowing that data will allow the medical system to better address a community’s needs.

— Eric Boodman

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