The following manuscript was submitted to the February 2017 Social Medicine Themed Writing Contest.
She was talking to another attending when I recognized her voice from around the corner. As a third-year medical student, I wanted to look busy, so I moved briskly, avoiding eye contact, trying to make it seem as if I were headed somewhere important.
I stopped at a respectful distance … nervous. She might as well have been a sleeping unicorn — an extraordinary figure you want to touch but hope not to scare off as you approach. I had never seen someone like her — like me — doing this work.
My thoughts raced: I’ll just ask her if she’s mixed. No … mixed is too informal. How about biracial? I already knew the answer.
You see, I had inspected her closely in the operating room that day. Her skin had the same amount of melanin that mine had underneath my sterile gown. Her hair curled just the way mine did under my surgical bouffant. Her parents had to be just like mine — one black, one white.
Again, I thought about my approach. Perhaps I would say, “Hi, Doctor. I just have a quick question. Are you biracial?”
The conversation suddenly ended and the two attendings parted. I saw my chance. I set off down the hall to catch up with her. I had lived twenty-five years never having seen someone like someone like her — like me — doing this work.
With as much determination as a medical student could scrounge up, I blurted, “Excuse me, Doctor. Hi, my name is Hillary. I was in the operating room with you earlier today. I have a quick question.”
She stared at me, puzzled.
“Are you biracial?” I asked as my voice cracked.
Her eyes told me I had crossed a line. But, I was certain she had heard this question before. I have, anyway. People are always asking me … telling me … what I do and do not look like. “Are you Hawaiian?” Nope. “Are you black with some ancestor of Asian descent?” Nope. Just black and white. Mixed. Biracial.
Was I being unprofessional asking an attending her race? I didn’t mean to offend … I was just looking for someone who looked like me to mentor me — someone who knew the struggles of being both a female and a surgeon, intensified by having been born straddling two different racial groups.
“Yes, I am…” Her voice trailed off, suggesting that I was asking a very personal question.
“I am, too,” I answered as I swallowed hard. “Today is the first day I’ve ever seen anyone that looks like me doing what I want to do.”
I hoped my uncertain smile reflected my dream of a relationship, but she did not smile in return.
“I’m glad…” She paused. “…you had a good day in the OR.” She then turned and continued down the hallway away from me. My unicorn vision slowly faded.
I wanted to plead that I wasn’t looking for just a good day in the operating room. I was looking for a life-long mentor, a sage, of sorts. Someone who had experienced the challenges that I would soon face everyday as I walk into the OR with my dark skin under my sterile gown, my wild curls tamed by my surgical bouffant. Someone whose voice could offer me refuge.
I had never seen someone like her — like me — doing this work.
Image credit: Cardiac operating room by Ruhrfisch licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.