By Yetunde Sokunbi, MD
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
We can all agree that 2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year. One for the history books. Who could have predicted COVID-19 — an illness that has completely changed how we live and interact with one another? As physicians we have pivoted to telemedicine visits in order to still care for our patients. But not only are we dealing with living through a historic global pandemic, we are also witnessing political and civil unrest right before our eyes. With the advent of the internet and 24/7 news cycle, we are all connected in a matter of milliseconds.
The murder of George Floyd was horrific. Plain and simple. Watching the incident on the news, seeing the replay, is nothing short of traumatic. I think it was especially traumatic because of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor just weeks prior.
And people were witnessing this in real time. Glued to their screens in disbelief that these events are happening day after day in the U.S. No longer could some say “we’re in a post-racial society” because video doesn’t lie.
Systemic racism is now on the forefront of everyone’s minds.
I work in Pearland, Texas, just minutes from where George Floyd was laid to rest. Seeing his funeral services on national TV and on the front page of newspapers all over the globe was surreal. Black people are dying simply because of the color of their skin. Unable to go for a run outside or enjoy a sunny day in the park without fearing for their safety.
Not only are people of color concerned for their safety in the outside world, they are also very cautious when having to seek medical care. People of color are disproportionately affected — higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Maternal mortality rates and adverse surgical outcomes are higher in the Black community.
I’m a Black female physician. The daughter for two Nigerian immigrant physicians. I learned from a young age the value of hard work and giving back to the community. I learned that education is the key to success. I also learned that I would have to work twice as hard to receive half the credit because of my race. It’s a talk that all Black parents have with their children at some point. Growing up, how one dresses, talks, or styles their hair is important because we must always consider how others may perceive us.
People of color deal with racism on a daily basis. From being followed in a store to being profiled when applying for a loan to being rejected for an interview based on their first name.
Microaggressions and overt aggressions are commonplace. Touching a Black woman’s hair or saying things like “you don’t sound Black” is offensive. There have been times in my professional career when I have walked into a patient’s room with my white coat, badge, and stethoscope, and would get asked “when’s the doctor coming?” “I’m here,” I reply and kindly introduce myself. Confused looks, furrowed brows. Then the questions come, regarding my schooling and birthplace.
There aren’t many that look like me. About 2% of all U.S. physicians are Black females. Sometimes I’ve been mistaken for an MA or a nurse. Sometimes I’ve been asked “what are you exactly?” because people are curious about my race and I have an interesting sounding last name. I’ve been complimented on my English. English is my first and only language. I grew up in Texas.
Black physicians are used to questions from curious patients. Used to being one of a handful (or the only one) at some professional meetings. Used to having to figure things out on our own, as finding a mentor after residency can be difficult. Used to interacting with staff that may not see you as an authority figure.
But the world keeps turning. As the world turns, we as a society continue to evolve. We continue to learn better ways to interact with one another. Accept each other. Care for each other. Look after each other.
As physicians, we are called to a higher standard. We are called to treat everyone who walks into our office with kindness and compassion. Heal and care for the sick. Get people well and keep them healthy and happy so they can live beautiful lives. In order to care for all patients, of every race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, and varying abilities, we must first look within. We must first uncover and identify any bias we may have. We must continue to be curious about the world around us. Learn about other cultures and religions.
Reading is a great place to start. Since we can’t travel to other countries right now, reading books from authors of varying backgrounds allows us to see the world from a different perspective. A new light.
Systemic racism is now a public health crisis. AAFP recently issued a statement acknowledging this as well as acknowledging racism within health care. Books such as “So You Want to Talk about Race” by Ijeoma Oluo and “How to be an AntiRacist” by Ibram X. Kendi are topping the best sellers lists now. Companies are actively adding people of color to their boards and adding Chief Diversity Officer positions because this work is important. This is a great start, but the work continues.
We as physicians must be sensitive to what is going on in the world around us. Our patients depend on it.