Month: July 2020

The Masked Asian Psychiatrist

About three months ago, I had a Definitely Racist Interaction at work. A patient—we’ll call him Allan—said to me: “I’d like a white doctor. Is there a white doctor available?”

Allan’s voice was even, but his attitude was provocative, as if he were testing me. I felt a flash of fury, but kept my face expressionless. Presumably the surgical mask I wore also helped to hide my feelings.

My Chiaroscuro Moment

From a young age, I aspired to enter the nursing profession. Beginning my career, in the late 1970s, I scarcely imagined how many facets of health care I’d come to know–from human-subject research to healthcare law and bioethics–or what opportunities my career would bring.

One opportunity came in the early 1980s: I went to Rome to work as a nurse at a university. During that remarkable year, I took advantage of my location to learn more about Baroque art.

A Question of Trust

Years ago, when I first joined the family-medicine faculty of the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), I spearheaded a project to build stronger connections with the surrounding communities, primarily made up of people of color and low-income individuals. Deepening our ties with these communities would, we hoped, give us more understanding of our patients’ health needs, and might help them to feel more receptive to our efforts.

So I Was at This Dinner Party…

Atlanta, 2004. I’m seated next to a stranger at a large table at my brother’s home; I know no one there except my brother and his family. My son stayed back in New York with his dad, and my daughter was playing in another room. When the woman next to me hears where I am from, she mentions that she had once lived across the river from me. I knew her town well.

“It was nice there,” she said. “But’”–she lowered her voice–“we had to move.”

I knew why right away, but I had to hear it from her. “Oh?” I asked innocently. “Why?”

“Oh, you know,” she leaned in and whispered. “The Blacks.”

Here was my chance, and I didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, I know,” I replied. “They’re so noisy, and they make such a mess. I have two of them living downstairs in my house. They drive me crazy sometimes.”

She looked confused.

“My children are biracial,” I smiled at her. And I immediately felt terrible for embarrassing her, as she fell over herself apologizing.

But another part of me didn’t feel terrible. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but it  just goes to show you: you never know …

So I Was at This Dinner Party… Read More »

Stubborn as a Mule

I remember my mother referring to me from early childhood on as “stubborn as a mule.” That trait has held me in good stead when dealing with authority figures or doctors who have tried to talk me into doing something I knew wasn’t right.

The event I remember most, though, comes from my grammar school years. A girl in our class was “retarded” (the term used then), as was her mother. She came to school with her hair uncombed, clothes dirty, and wearing no underpants. Each day at recess a group of boys encouraged her to go on the hanging bars so they could run under and look up her dress.

No One Ever Asked

Today I greet Mr. Williams verbally, which is very different for us; usually we say hello with a hug.

“Mr. Williams,” I say, “I’m not going to hug you today, with this pandemic.”

“I get that, Doc,” he answers, adjusting his mask; I can’t tell if he’s smiling or not.

Can A Twenty-Two-Year-Old Medical Student Speak Up?

In 1970 I was a twenty-two-year-old first-year medical student riding down from New Haven with my classmates and our medical school dean to Washington, DC to join other medical students lobbying members of Congress to end the war in Vietnam. The organizers had arranged for us students to sleep on the floor of some dorm rooms at Georgetown University, which we did. (The dean, I am sure, did much better than that.)

Racism in Medicine Kills People. I Have Seen It.

The year was 1997, or thereabouts. She called on an otherwise slow day in the AIDS service agency I had started and was running on fumes and prayers. Her name was Mary.

Mary’s voice was trembling. She had been raped, and beaten, and feared she had AIDS. I knew she needed medical attention, so I got into my car to find her house, a tiny home next to the railroad tracks.

The Sin of Silence

When I was twenty years old, I read Elie Wiesel’s 1966 book, The Jews of Silence. I learned that silence is a sin—that passively watching something heinous happen without actively speaking out against it is almost as bad as participating in the negative behavior. While this lesson did not result in my joining marches or writing letters to political leaders, it did make me more cognizant of the necessity to speak up when I witness injustices.

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