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The honor and obligation of being Black in a white coat

Black physicians and alumni of Stanford Medicine discussed their experiences in the medical profession, from serving as role models to feeling isolated.

- By Mandy Erickson

African American physicians discussed their experiences as members of a racial minority in the medical field during a Feb. 28 panel discussion.

At a recent panel discussion honoring Black History Month, African American physicians described feeling a sense of privilege and responsibility.

“Every time I take care of a Black patient,” said Matthew Bucknor, MD, associate professor of radiology at UC San Francisco, “there’s that moment when they recognize that you’re one of their doctors. The look of pride in their eyes — that definitely carries me. The looks on those faces are something I can’t ever forget.”

The online event, “Being Black in a White Coat at Stanford Medicine: Past, Present, Future,” was held Feb. 28. Moderated by Terrance Mayes, PhD, associate dean for equity and strategic initiatives, and medical student Arokoruba Cheetham-West, it featured professors and alumni of the Stanford School of Medicine.

In opening the discussion, Adjoa Boateng, MD, clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford Medicine, expressed solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

She also noted that Russian’s invasion of the country had unearthed anti-Black racism: Medical students from Africa have been unable to evacuate the country or obtain relief services “by virtue of the color of their skin, the color of our skin,” she said.

Bucknor, who graduated from the school of medicine in 2008, and other panelists said that being a Black physician can be isolating and demanding, but that they understood how important Black doctors are to Black patients, as well as to young people who aspire to become physicians.

“I stole a patient from another person’s primary care panel because the grandma was in the room and she’s like, ‘I want this guy as my pediatrician,’” said Jeffrey Edwards, MD, who graduated from the school in 2021 and is a pediatric resident at the Boston Combined Residency Program. As the only Black man among the 150-plus pediatric residents there, he added, “I just think that it means so much. It’s really important to understand your value.”

A social media star

Odette Harris, MD, said she learned her value when she was promoted to professor of neurosurgery and the school posted about it on social media. The posts went viral, sparking news reports as well as emails and letters from children around the world. Harris, the Paralyzed Veterans of America Professor in Spinal Cord Injury Medicine, said she was at first annoyed by the attention. But she realized how much she mattered to those children and decided to respond to every message.

“It was a recognition, for me, of just how few of us there are, and the work we have to do. And what responsibility we have … to the next generation,” she said.

Carla Pugh, MD, PhD, professor of surgery and the Thomas Krummel Professor, said that being taught by Black and brown professors helped her as a medical student at Howard University College of Medicine. It gave her a “level of pride,” she said, to “see people who look like you who are lecturing and know thousands of different bacteria.”

Someone has to be first. Why not you?

Panelists also said that being a racial minority can create extra work for Black physicians. “And it’s not like we have oodles of free time,” said Harris, who recommended that Black doctors weigh what’s important to them and become comfortable with saying no.

Racist encounters were also discussed by the panelists, who noted that they occur more often when they aren’t wearing their white coats. Pugh said that workers taking care of her yard “dropped their rakes and left the property” one day when she returned home early from work and they saw her for the first time.

“It’s woven into the fabric of this nation,” Edwards said. Being part of an institution with a reputation “helps a lot in avoiding some of those pitfalls.” But “once you’re outside of the workplace, it’s an open fire.”

Reaching out during COVID

Asked what steps they’ve taken to help the Black community during the COVID-19 pandemic, Iris Gibbs, MD, professor of radiation oncology and associate dean of MD admissions, said that she participated in videos promoting COVID-19 vaccination. But she didn’t wear her white coat, “so they could see we are people like they are. I said that I was [getting a vaccine] for all of the people who relied upon me.”

As for advice they’d give to young Black people entering medicine, Woodrow Myers, MD, a health policy adviser who earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford in 1973, said, “One of the most significant skills to learn, especially early on, is how to trust your own good instincts … when the people above you say something that’s wrong.”

“It’s not an easy road,” Harris added. “Anything worthwhile doing usually is not. Just remember that. Someone has to be first. Why not you?”

 

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care, and Stanford Children's Health. For more information, please visit the Office of Communications website at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

2022 ISSUE 1

Understanding the world within us

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