My fingers tense. Frozen not of my own accord. I want to do this, but I can’t. I need to do this, yet the anxiety grips at my mind and throat, stalling what should be an easy decision. As a Black, gay medical student in my fourth year, what I’m about to do has so many repercussions and permutations. So much so that I feel stuck, unable to be decisive when decisiveness is necessary.
I have finally had enough. As a health care provider, COVID-19 brought about a lot of uncertainty and many changes in preparation for what might unfold. But over the last few months, the social unrest surrounding police brutality and the disproportionate occurrence of these cases towards people of color has added to my physical exhaustion by conflating it with both emotional and mental fatigue. After 32 years of tolerating systemic racism, it is finally my turn to say something.
When do you leap into the unknown and venture into the uncomfortable? Is it after methodical deliberation or is it much more abrupt, emboldened by a critical decision? Perhaps it is a deep drive within you, one that propels you forward in a way in which you cannot look back.
Earlier in February of this year, before COVID-19’s onslaught in London, UK, I was covering service on a respiratory ward when a young medical student made herself known to the physician’s office. “Could I borrow your stethoscope? I’m here to practice my respiratory examinations.”
Take a female physician — a doctorate of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) — dress her up in hot pink scrubs, give her Medical Terminology for Dummies, and have her read it upside down. What do you have? The answer is an advertisement for Figs Scrubs (@wearfigs).
“You could help us with our diversity efforts. If you came here, you could be a part of building up our diversity program.” Who said I wanted to help with your diversity efforts? Why hasn’t it been built up already?
In the pandemic’s wake, we witnessed the explosion of viral social media content such as Plandemic, an alternate exaggerated narrative which sought to perpetuate the types of claims one would expect from the title. These kinds of conspiracy theories have always existed in many different shapes and forms; however, COVID-19 struck at a time when society was suffering from a pre-existing condition of deep mistrust.
Recent events have highlighted a systemic problem within our world, our country, our state, and our community. People of color fight an uphill battle in every facet of life, at every socioeconomic level. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception — as we all know by now, patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately afflicted. But the spotlight has refocused on a chronic pandemic: systemic racism.
On June 1, I worked a shift in the trauma intensive care unit as riots and looting continued outside and the National Guard patrolled the streets. A group of nurses and I gathered around the police radio held up by two officers who accompanied a patient.
“Hello? Can you hear me?” Tightly holding the phone, I heard only an old man’s distant yelling and the shattering of dishes being thrown against the wall.
The pandemic points to an important lesson: a rejection of traditional leadership structures, at least those that feed into a profit-based medical system, may be necessary in order to create a different world. The union provides such a framework, vesting power in a collective of voices. But in order to succeed at the level of a union, physicians need to let their voices join that collective — they cannot expect a delegate or representative alone to do the entire job, just as we might expect a program director to guide us in the right direction.
I learned to trust my own discomfort as an indicator of the toxic power dynamics that breed abuse for both patients and health workers. I became even more attuned to the pitfalls of professionalism because of my membership in Put People First! PA (PPF-PA), a human rights organization made up of working-class people building power to win universal health care.