“Doc, can I say just one more thing?”
Every clinician knows this moment—the so-called doorknob moment, when your hand is reaching for the exam-room door, and your patient asks the question that’s been on their mind the whole visit. It’s the issue that’s been nagging them, usually an embarrassing or emotionally laden issue, sometimes both. Every clinician knows better than to walk out on a doorknob moment.
I sit back down. “What’s on your mind?”
My patient asks if I’m aware that some of the clinic staff are wearing badges that say “Black Lives Matter.” I tell him I am; the hospital has been giving them out since the summer, as part of a new policy of anti-racism.
“Well, I find them offensive,” says my patient. “My life is worth as much as any [n-word].”
I freeze. As an Indian-American woman, a child of immigrants, I am no stranger to microaggressions. Throughout my childhood and medical training, teachers, colleagues, and patients have butchered my name, asked me to trace my pedigree, commented on (and sometimes touched) my hair, and complimented my English. I’m used to such moments, and I’ve always laughed them off, ignored them, kept my head down, stayed out of the way.
Not this moment, though. This one is different. I’m at another kind of doorknob moment. This patient is inviting me, metaphorically, into his racist worldview. He is doing this because I happen not to be wearing one of the “Black Lives Matter” badges; either he believes I will agree with him, or he’s so angry he’ll talk to anyone.
I can choose to do what I usually do: deflect, reorient, move on.
Or I can choose to do something else.
What I choose to do is stand, tell him he needs to find another doctor, and walk out of the room. I choose to contact leadership to request that the patient no longer be scheduled with me or any other clinician in our group. His termination letter goes out within days.
Like all doorknobs, this threshold signaled the end of one relationship, but also the beginning of a new one—an anti-racist relationship with myself and my peers. It hasn’t been easy. Less than a week after this incident, a white colleague cornered me in the workroom and asked, “Who takes care of the racists?” But it’s an essential step in healing the fractures of my professional and personal identities into an integrated self.
May the doorknobs of 2021 open with ease.
Durham, North Carolina