Leaving my office this evening, I see the white orchid’s last petal struggling to hold on. With its faded grey veins and withered brown edges, it looks like a bit of old, crumpled paper. Even the sunlight streaming through the window doesn’t brighten it. Tenderly, I reach down to touch its softness.
The touch transports me back to when I first met Shirley, who gave me the orchid. I remember it vividly.
This essay is modeled after Sei Shonogun’s list “Hateful Things” from her tenth-century classic The Pillow Book. She listed everything she hated about being a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress, ca. 966-1017.
I wrote my list as a family physician working in community health centers, ca. 2005-2020. As our nation grapples with endemic racism while also facing the COVID pandemic, my trials and tribulations may seem trivial–but they also reflect a broken medical system that badly needs fixing, for everyone’s sake.
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.
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.
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.
Gearing up for my night shift in the COVID-19 intensive-care unit, I don my personal protective equipment (PPE)–a white plastic air-purifying respirator (PAPR) hood. The hood connects via a tube to a large battery pack that I strap onto my waist over my scrubs. I turn on the battery and shiver when the rush of cool air blows past my ears. I walk into a bright white antechamber where a safety officer inspects me.
“You’re good to go,” she says. “Stay safe.”