For Doctors and Nurses of Color, Racism Is the Medical Threat That Doesn't Go Away
Some are viewed as interns or "the help" rather than doctors and nurses.
More than 2 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began earlier this year. Yet there are clear differences in coronavirus survival rates among ethnic groups. The Black community has been hit the hardest, with a death rate of 61.6 per 100,000 people, compared to 28.2 for Latinx people, 26.3 for Asians, and 26.2 for whites.
On top of the pandemic, people of color are burdened by racism and police brutality that often doesn’t lead to justice. Black and brown medical professionals go home after their shifts hoping that they or their families don’t contract the coronavirus, and they hope for the best outcomes for their patients. But they know that, despite their essential status, they are more likely to be profiled or have a fatal encounter with a police officer.
Five medical professionals of color across America shared their concerns with Health, and how they’re helping their patients fight the virus while fighting for respect within their workplaces. (These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Gail Menezes, trauma ICU registered nurse, Ocala, Florida
I think being a woman of color is harder in the long-term compared to COVID. COVID-19 is here and now we just have to deal with it— distance yourself, use precautions, be careful, and hopefully we will be okay. However, you can’t "just deal" with racism and being a person of color. It's hard also because I am a mom and I worry about what the world will be like for my son.
Not once have I cried over the threat of COVID. As a nurse, I've compartmentalized it. I knew I had a job and kept it moving. Since The Black Lives Matter protests this year, I have cried multiple times with distress and anxiety for my future, my son's future and the future of the people that may and probably will be affected by racism. You can’t compartmentalize being a person of color and being yourself.
Nurses have to put it all aside just to do what we do: care for and save lives. In medicine, it is important to be aware of your beliefs and biases in order to provide fair and proper care. Police, like medical professionals, need to be aware of their personal beliefs and how it can affect their jobs and the people they come in contact with. It’s not okay, it was never okay, and it will never be okay.
Elizabeth P. Clayborne, MD, emergency room physician, Prince George's County, Maryland
It’s so surprising that in 2020, I’m still not recognized as a doctor. What's most striking is that I’m most frequently mistaken for a nurse, or even environmental services. There have been times when I’ve been mistaken as the medical school student. Anything but a qualified doctor. I think that's attributed to the long-standing stereotype that Black women can’t be doctors, and it is disheartening.
Where I am in Maryland, I do work with a predominantly Black population, and I see what a difference my presence makes. When a Black family comes in, upon learning that I’m the doctor, I’ll watch as a big smile comes across the patient’s face. They say they’re proud of me, and they are comforted because I look like them and believe that I’m on their side.
With COVID, the disparities in health are being highlighted, and more Black people are dying than other races. I see a population that was already struggling in a vulnerable state. I feel helpless. I can take care of my patients in the ER, but I can’t go with them out into their community to care for and protect them personally. I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle, but it is an honor to provide quality care and identify with their backgrounds.
It has been heart-wrenching to see our community with disproportionate deaths and poor outcomes as a result of this pandemic. I work every day to bring this truth to light, warn our community about the seriousness of this virus, and push our hospital systems and government agencies to direct resources to the communities that have been overlooked for too long.
Courtney Melvin, registered nurse, Willingboro, New Jersey
I have more fear of being a woman of color than of COVID! Being a Black woman means I have to fight and prove myself in this world on a daily basis and show that I am capable of my work. I often get looked at as “the help.” People often assume that I am an aide rather than a nurse, and I have had patients tell me that they didn’t want me as their nurse because of the color of my skin. Being Black and in medicine means you have to prove that you know what you are doing, and then some. It’s like we are still not accepted in this world.
I don’t get a pass from suspicion either, even when I’m in my uniform. For instance, I was driving to my job and was pulled over to the side of the hospital by the police. The cop saw that I was in uniform, but continued to make his way over to me with his bright flashlight to tell me to move my vehicle seemingly without reason. This was when the pandemic started.
In nursing school, my Black medical-surgical teacher pushed me harder than anyone in my class and when I asked her why, she said, “Because other races don’t have to prove anything, they will even get an easier ride.” Now I see what she means! It’s tough. I have been in this field for over seven years and I’m still proving myself. On days like this, I keep my composure and my head up. I have to remember why I became a nurse in the first place, and that helps me.
Shiza Tanveer, ER technician, Baltimore
As a young health care professional, COVID-19 is the first health crisis I have dealt with professionally—and one that is particularly isolating, nerve-wracking, and emotionally draining. While the virus is dangerous in itself, it has brought to light the true dangers of the racist institutional structures in place that make certain races more vulnerable to infection. Working on the front lines, I can attest to the fact that an overwhelming majority of my patients are from marginalized communities.
Despite being an essential worker, I do still encounter people who may have their own racial or religious biases. It is unfortunate that some people still believe that skin color is correlated with capability or intelligence, but our job as health care workers is to help everyone regardless of their beliefs about us. As a visibly Muslim American, I have had my share of negative interactions with law enforcement and drawn glaring stares from strangers because of my hijab, but I’ve never feared for my life. I benefit from having lighter skin, and I’m fully aware of that privilege. I don’t think twice about calling the police if I am ever in an emergency situation. At the end of the day, I can exchange my hijab for a hoodie and appear less threatening, but a Black person cannot change the color of their skin.
I believe each of us has a duty to actively fight and work against a system that is inherently racist. This starts with educating ourselves and checking our own unconscious biases so that we can unlearn them and be better equipped to advocate for all patients, regardless of the color of their skin. Racism is a public health crisis and it has no place within the health care system.
Rebekah Fenton, MD, adolescent medicine fellow, Chicago
These concerns [around COVID and racism] have a significant overlap for me. As a Black woman, I tense up when a police car appears in my rearview mirror, and sometimes I get scared by random white SUVs. I become overly cautious of my actions—turning down my music, double-checking before turning, and slowing down well below the speed limit—then sighing with relief when the car drives away. The whole time, I worry that my nervousness will lead to me making a traffic mistake just because I’m not thinking clearly.
This fear has been certainly present longer than my worries about COVID, but my heart still breaks for the physical, emotional, and economic impact that Black and indigenous people of color have experienced during the pandemic. I am concerned that my family members with diabetes and high blood pressure may get sick and experience complications. I had to sort through my own emotions before I could participate in mobile testing for COVID, balancing the benefit of helping the community with the risk of potentially exposing my Black husband. The same structural racism that affects my interactions with police also impacts the experiences of communities of color in this pandemic.
Luckily, I can say that, in my line of work, I feel respected. My division does not have the same track record of focusing on health equity that they do on other topics. Advocating for it can be hard when many don’t see how it works, and I hope to change that. As a pediatrician, I’m working with a group of doctors who care for youth to amplify youth voices and work to end the $33 million contract that Chicago police has with the public school district. Students should feel safe at school and have access to resources that help them thrive. I’m combatting the racism that my patients face by trying to make a difference.
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