'I just want to come home': Pandemic traps 81-year-old York County immigrant in Finland

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Lea Hyvärinen (left) and Liisa Temple (right) pose for a photo. Hyvärinen, who is currently in Finland, has been denied a special exception to travel from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki three times. Credit: Liisa Temple

Eighty-one-year-old Lea Hyvärinen has been trying to reunite with her family in York County since October.

The Finnish immigrant, who resides in Lewisberry with her daughter Liisa Temple, was denied three times a special exception application with the U.S. Embassy in Finland — preventing her from leaving the country under international travel rules established during the pandemic.

"I have lived the majority of the last 10 to 15 years in the United States," Hyvärinen said. "I want to be with my family, read and talk with my granddaughter and take care of my flowers. I just want to come home."

Hyvärinen, who broke her shoulder in May after taking a fall, is a widely acclaimed ophthalmologist and cannot consult clients or give webinars in Finland, she said. Additionally, all of her belongings remain in York County.

Her daughter argued that for those two reasons, and since Hyvärinen is fully vaccinated, she should qualify for an international flight exception. 

"We as her family should take care of her, she should not be alone and relying on the kindness of strangers," Temple said. "It's very frustrating; it's almost like nobody cares."

Hyvärinen requested a special flight exception form the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki in October and March. Most recently, her family applied on June 3 — but in less than 12 hours, they received another rejection notice.

"Unfortunately, your purpose of travel did not meet the narrow scope of national interest exceptions available to this proclamation and the request has been denied," according to a copy of the notice. 

Currently, there are four presidential proclamations that suspend entry into the United States of all noncitizens who were physically present in any of 33 countries, including Finland, during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State.

While Hyvärinen forfeited her green card in 2018 in order to receive medical care in her birth country, she still has a U.S. visa, which does not expire until 2027, according to Temple.

Lea Hyvärinen poses with an award for her work in ophthalmology. Credit: Liisa Temple

Prior to the pandemic, Hyvärinen traveled back and forth between the United States and Finland for medical care. She last traveled in February 2020 — and then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

"She wants to be with her family, she has a home here," Temple said. "All of her stuff is here. She still writes articles and gives lectures — all that stuff is here."

Hyvärinen began her career in the scientific and medical world more than 50 years ago.

She developed the LEA Test Vision System, a system containing more than 40 core tests for clinical vision screening in children and adults now used in 142 countries, according to her website.

To support Hyvärinen's case in granting a travel exception, her personal medical doctor and the director of the National Eye Institute both wrote letters to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki. 

Her doctor, Christine Callahan, argued that Hyvärinen requires post-surgery eyedrops to manage her glaucoma — which she cannot give to herself due to her breaking her shoulder. The assisted living facility in which Hyvärinen resides is "inconsistent" in providing this care. 

Additionally, Dr. Michael Chiang, the director of the National Eye Institute, argued for Hyvärinen, who aims to donate her scientific archives to the Eye Center at Hershey Medical Center — but cannot do so while abroad.

"Dr. Hyvärinen is 81 years old and our goal is to secure her scientific legacy before she passes away," Chiang said in a letter. "Preserving Dr. Hyvärinen’s legacy and teachings impacts current and future vision professionals not only in the United States but around the world."

A month ago, Temple started a change.org petition for her mother — which has since garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

After being rejected three times by the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Temple said she is considering hiring an immigration lawyer or reapplying for Hyvärinen to receive a new green card.

"She has correct immigration papers to be here, she has a valid entry visa," Temple said. "She should be able to come home."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.