This weekend we lost another selfless leader, Dr. Joseph Costa of Baltimore. Chief of his hospital’s intensive care division, he continuously led his team on the front lines of pandemic patient care, despite his own high risk medical condition. He succumbed to COVID-19, in his husband’s arms, surrounded by colleagues turned caregivers.
My friends, are you exhausted like I am? 4.2 million American COVID cases (about a quarter of total global cases). At the current rate we will likely cross 150,000 deaths by the end of this week. And it won’t stop there. We will lose many, many more mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, sons and daughters in the coming months. This, all while PPE shortages still put healthcare workers at risk across the country, caring for those who follow prevention guidelines the same as for those who do not.
Read Dr. Costa’s story. Remember him.
Then honor his memory and those of the almost 600 healthcare workers who have died of COVID-19 by wearing your mask and protecting the people around you.
Her name is Odette Harris, MD.
She is a neurosurgeon and the director of brain injury care at Stanford Medicine. She is a Black woman. “Something as absurd as putting the initials of your state next to your name seems more plausible than the fact that ‘MD’ stands for doctor. I can’t even tell you how many people ask that.”
Someone handed her their car keys outside of the venue where she gave a keynote address, thinking she was the car valet. [Michael Welp mentions this in Four Days to Change—it is a common occurrence for our Black sisters and brothers.]
During an all-day meeting, after she stood up from the conference table to stretch her legs, her own colleague asked if she was going to set up for lunch.
Nobody has ever asked me if I’m from Maryland because ‘MD’ comes after my name. I have never been mistaken for a car valet or wait staff at a professional meeting. And I am not the chief neurosurgeon who runs traumatic brain injury care at my hospital. Let us white and white-adjacent folks meditate on Dr. Harris’s experiences for a moment. Because that’s all we have to do—consider them for a minute or two. Our Black colleagues and peers live such denigration their whole lives.
The Wall of Misogyny
It started with, “Your hair smells incredible.” Followed by, “My hands may touch you. They are hard to control.” It even went as far as, “You were in my dream last night. Did I mention it was wet?” He made my skin crawl. I spent more time focused on trying to be where he wasn’t that I had no space left to focus on why I was there in the first place, and that was to learn. The awkward stares from OR staff looking upon me with pity made me want to vomit. And the number of male physician on-lookers who seemed to watch this behavior for sport did nothing but enable his behavior (when one brought his daughter to work with him, it was all I could do but hope she never had to experience from a man what I was experiencing from him). The lack of shock of such behavior from everyone aware in the system confirmed its normalcy.
Read this stark essay by Dr. Megan Babb, a fellow physician mom. Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s incisive speech on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, Dr. Babb published her own story and those of many other physician women. They recount the everyday misogyny that for too long we have blithely accepted as ‘the way things are’ in medical culture. Peruse them slowly (a few choice samples below). Imagine they are your mother, your sister, your daughter, your friend, your colleague. How would you upstand for them?
I was asked by a male patient if I needed to practice my prostate exam technique because he was happy to allow me to do so on him. When I asked the administrative team to move him to the service of any one of my many male colleagues I was told, “These are the sort of things that build character. I think we need to thicken your skin. The patient will remain on your service.”
I recently gave a presentation at grand rounds in my hospital. When I walked to the podium, I overheard a male physician say to a group of others, “Isn’t the lecture today supposed to be given by an orthopedic surgeon?” I am the orthopedic surgeon he speaks of.
As a medical student I was on a surgical rotation with a male urologist. While assisting him with a TURP [trans-urethral resection of the prostate] he asked me, “Would you like to see what a well-endowed penis looks like?”
And There Is Still Hope
A specialist physician and woman of color consulted on a patient in the hospital, a white man. He was frustrated at having to see so many doctors and answer so many questions. So he demanded that she sit in silence until he was good and ready to talk. After the 25 minute hospital visit, she rightly documented his behavior in the chart, as she had done for so many episodes of patients’ abusive behavior in the past, especially since these patients often levy complaints against her for treating them badly. To her surprise, the white male attending hospitalist paged her later to discuss the occurrence. He had read the chart and apologized for the patient’s behavior. He also called the patient out, asserting that if our colleague had been a white male herself, the patient would never have treated her like that.
An authentic white male ally, wow.
…White men are more likely to listen to and follow other white men, I thought.
So I wrote her, “Can his actions be amplified so that he feels empowered and inspired to do this more? So that other white men can see his example more easily and feel safe to follow? Can someone mention his actions on rounds, share them in a newsletter, make them as visible as possible? Examples like this can go such a long way to recruit white men to the cause—so many men sit on the fence, and just need to see one of their own lead the way, and then they get off on the side of doing what’s right.”
She agreed to highlight his actions in an upcoming community spotlight, noting that now he would likely be the target of any patient complaint. We agreed that he would then need the support he gave her, given back to him, and then some. We reflected on this great opportunity for colleagues to unite in solidarity for one another, standing up to cultural norms that oppress us all.
Stories like these humanize ‘others’ to us. If we are honest, we may recognize that the ideas of ‘healthcare workers’ and ‘women of color’, among others, too often float on the surface of our consciousness as abstractions. It does not occur to us to try to relate or empathize, to see them as real, flesh and blood people like ourselves.
But that is what the world needs the most right at this minute—for us all to relate and empathize with each and every other human who suffers, who lives a different life from our own. Our connections are the only thing that will heal us.
The stories of discrimination and disrespect—both blatant and unconscious—are exhausting … and discouraging. But I have hope, too, Cathy. It feels like we may be reaching a tipping point where enough people are willing to say “No more—this ends here!” and are unwilling to overlook or give a pass to contemptible speech or behavior. Perhaps I’m being a Pollyanna, but I am hopeful that the upheavals of 2020 and societal responses to them will ultimately lead us to embracing and living the values we have long espoused and too often ignored. Hope springs eternal….
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I agree! It will take all of us persisting in the Work, and not getting complacent, thinking others will keep going when we get tired. We will all get fatigued and need a break sometimes. But then we have to get off the bench and back in the game, to relieve our teammates. The arc of the moral universe needs us all to constantly hang on it with all of our weight to really bend toward justice!
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Allies, camaraderie, support are all so important in this world. I am glad OAC did not falter, did not react in kind, did not allow herself to be denigrated, but called it out. I am grateful to see all the different races marching together for an end to brutality and discrimination. And I am heartened to see people from all walks of life coming out against authoritarian shows of force in Portland and other places. This is a painful time. Let’s hope it gives birth to some big changes. They have been a long time coming. Thank you as always for your insight and real life samples of the realities of the work that needs to be done. I appreciate what you do here on your blog Catherine.
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Thank you, Ilona! Your kind words are much appreciated. I also admire AOC for her poise, professionalism, and grace. She took a personal attack and made it into a brilliant teachable moment for the world. And now we have it to learn from ad infinitum. The insidious and oppressive cultural norm that she so eloquently incises in her speech is inescapable to all but the most stubborn deniers now. And at the same time she so firmly stood up and called out her attacker, she showed her own vulnerability and humanity. Not many people can pull off this exquisite balance of power and humility. I will study her method and emulate it.
I really admire these women for their hard work and willingness to tell these hard stories. Reliving those moments must be traumatic enough – and the nature of these tells me they are also impossible to forget. I cannot fathom the anger and hurt and pain of these women – and yet I can clearly see each unfolding, too. How horrific and tragic – and yet you leave us with a note of hope. For this, I am grateful. Thank you for encouraging others to share their stories and for lifting up those who are trying their best to lift us as well.
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Tara, thank you for stopping by, and for taking the time to write this kind comment. The more we share and amplify one another’s stories, the harder it will be for the toxicities of the status quo to persist! It will be up to each and every one of us to contribute and keep the momentum going. Onward!
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