Black lives matter in the health care space, too.

By Tonya Russell
June 08, 2020
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Right now, in almost every major city in the US (and quite a few around the world), protests are taking place that call for police reform and the support of Black lives. Protesting has always been potentially dangerous, but there's an additional threat protesters have to contend with: the coronavirus pandemic. Over 100,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, and the number of cases is climbing in many places, as states ease shelter-in-place orders. During the pandemic, we’ve also lost Americans to police brutality and racial profiling.

Many of our essential health care workers currently fighting COVID-19 are also committed to fighting for equality at protests, and some are marching and holding signs in their scrubs and white coats. But fear of the virus is keeping some from being on the protest front lines, such as Tina Douroudian, an optometrist from Sterling, Virginia. 

Douroudian feels for the Black community because of longstanding police brutality. She is Iranian-American but white-passing. “I’ve never had any negative encounters with the police, but I also pass as white. This week has been a learning experience for me.” Douroudian says that if it weren’t for the pandemic, she’d be marching along with fellow doctors.

“Although it breaks my heart to not participate, being in large crowds of people could potentially act as a COVID-19 super-spreader event, even with people taking precautions,” Douroudian tells Health. "Many of my patients are immunocompromised and trust me to keep them safe.” Despite not being a part of the crowd, she’s protesting in her own way: she's raising awareness via social media by calling for justice for Breonna Taylor, the EMT from Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed by police after they raided the wrong home.  

Several medical professionals opened up about their protest experiences to Health, their interviews edited and condensed for clarity.

Jillian Ross, medical student at Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, D.C.

Why she protests: As a woman of faith, future physician, and as a Black woman from the south aware of true American history, I know I have an obligation to use my platform and voice to empower, to inspire, and to speak for those who can not. I am standing for social justice. I am standing for the end of systemic racism, which is a public health crisis, an economic crisis, an educational crisis, and a human rights crisis.

I am not only standing for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Emmett Till, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, but I am also standing for victims of systemic racism in healthcare. I am standing for Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were taken without her permission and still used to this day for medical research. I am standing for the victims of the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis study. I am standing for the Black women who were forced into sterilization, unbeknownst to them, during the racist medical eugenics period. I am standing for the countless victims of Dr. James Marion Sims, who performed unethical medical experiments on Black slaves. I am standing for those brilliant Black doctors who were denied acceptance into medical societies and deprived of job opportunities simply because of their Black skin like Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. Daniel Hall Williams, Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta and so many other hidden figures.

I don’t want to only see street names changed to Black Lives Matter. I want laws enacted. I want permanent change. I want equality for all. That is what I stand for.

COVID concerns: I wisely analyzed the pros and cons of marching and realized the fight for social justice and using my voice alongside a sea of other peaceful protesters outweighed the risk. Social justice is always worth the risk for me, as our future depends on it.

Some tips to minimize the spread include wearing a mask that fully covers your mouth and nose, washing hands frequently and/or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and getting tested to know your status. Definitely avoid touching your face with your hands, unnecessarily touching others, and sharing water bottles at protests.

Everyone has a voice and role to play. Some may be out marching in the streets, some may be helping to develop new legislation to make racism a public health issue, and some may even be advocating for more equal hiring procedures in hospitals and in residency programs. There are so many ways to make a difference and marching is only one of them. I encourage everyone, including my colleagues, to examine what platform they have, and think of ways to use it in order to dismantle systemic racism. In my view, physicians have a moral and ethical duty to advocate for social justice in the capacity and avenue that they see fit.

Kate Nuhn, general surgery, transplant, and urology nurse, Philadelphia 

Protest moment that’s made an impact: “I can’t even begin to describe the surreal feeling I had during the first large protest at City Hall. Three police cars engulfed in flames. The SWAT team marching in military fashion through the crowd. The people screaming and chanting for justice for George Floyd. One of the car’s gas tanks exploded and sounded like a bomb went off. Everyone started running and screaming in a panic at first, myself included. But the energy there also embodied hope. Hope for change. You could feel the passion. “Whose streets? Our streets!”

COVID concerns: “You know, I wish I could say I had more concern. I think I’ve just lived it at the hospital and it’s in my face so much that I’m numb to it. Don’t get me wrong—I wear my mask the whole time. And I was pleasantly surprised to see the majority of others wearing masks as well. I know COVID-19 is very real. I’ve taken care of patients who rapidly declined because of COVID, while wearing a rain poncho to protect myself from contracting it. But the virus has been here since the winter, and numbers have been down-trending in Philadelphia.” 

Arjun Arya, emergency medicine physician, Minneapolis 

Why he protests: “Racism has been, is, and will unfortunately, for now, continue to be the greatest threat to life for minorities in America. What so many people miss is that justice not only remedies current disparities, but improves everyone’s' life, minority or not.” 

Tips on staying safe: “Lucky for us, masks and  goggles offer some protection against rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and COVID. If you are able, make a sign and hold it so your hands can’t touch your face. The more people who are appropriately masked and goggled, the safer everyone will be. Keep your distance from others, and from a COVID standpoint, you are much safer than any gathering indoors.”

Zackary Brown, medical student at Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, D.C.

Why he protests: It is important to realize that racism and the constructs that arise from it are personified in every aspect of our lives. As medical professionals,  it is even more important to recognize that this is not an isolated, social issue but rather a public health issue whose effects can be seen in every Black, brown and patient of color that we see walk through our doors. Even more so, as a first-generation Black medical student, there is often an illusion that education protects you from such tragedies as Michael Brown, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. However, Breonna Taylor was an EMT medical professional whose life was taken in her own home. So it is important that we use our voices and platform to raise awareness and make it clear that no matter if I'm wearing a hoodie, or my white coat, I'm still a Black man who has seen many slain by the hands of the country that we are training to heal and serve.

COVID concerns: As we protest, we must acknowledge that there are two viruses plaguing our country: COVID-19 and racism—both of which require our undivided attention. So as a Black man, I am dedicated to fighting for justice and equality across the board. As a medical professional, I am also dedicated to health and service. So it is important to recognize that COVID-19 is definitely a priority in our lives, and it is important to follow guidelines and recommendations set by leading health experts. The CDC has released statements regarding recommendations while protesting which include: cloth face coverings to prevent spread, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, if possible, and to keep tissues on hand. It is important to further recognize that these statements are not condemning protesting, but rather providing tools, knowledge and resources to protest safely. As I follow the guidelines and recommendations for COVID-19, my fear of contact and spread while protesting are minimal, yet still present.

Natalie DiCenzo, ob-gyn physician resident, New Jersey 

Why she protests: “Medicine has historically been used as a tool for the exploitation and oppression of Black communities, from the biological construction of race and physiological myths used to justify slavery and eugenics, to Tuskegee, grave robbing Black cemeteries for cadaver labs, the ‘war on drugs,’ mass incarceration, and more.  This system contributed to the many racial disparities in health care today, especially evident in the number of COVID-related deaths in Black communities. For my ob-gyn patients in particular, racism is also a reproductive justice issue.” 

COVID concerns: “It is worth noting that only a couple weeks ago, crowds of white people were protesting COVID business closures, yet those demonstrations were not met with any sort of violent police brutality. It's undeniable that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and large gatherings do carry risk. However, the risk of remaining silent and complacent in the face of racism and police violence is also deadly. I believe that with the proper precautions, these protests can be done relatively safely when it comes to COVID-19. That being said, I am concerned that the police have been employing tactics that could lead to situations that increase the spread, such as [using] tear gas, kettling (which makes it impossible to maintain distance), and mass jailing." 

How to help from afar: “There are also many valuable ways that people can still show up without physically showing up, such as donating to community bail funds, calling your local representatives, educating others, and more.”

Shecarra Cook, family nurse practitioner, Plano, TX

Why she protests: As a Black nurse practitioner, I felt it was my duty to take a stand for racial injustices especially in our health care system. We have the opportunity break down barriers to provide inclusive, culturally competent health care services to everyone and now that everyone is watching and listening it’s time to make a difference. Many Black patients are less likely to receive quality care, more likely to face poorer health outcomes, and even have higher mortality rate than other races. Now it’s our job to figure out why and what can we do about it. We as a health care system have to create a stronger voice to help influence equity and inclusiveness within the healthcare system.

On protesting alone: I did not have any concerns for catching or spreading coronavirus because I was alone. I knew I would reach my audience via my social media platform. I would highly recommend wearing mask while out protesting to lower the risk of spreading and contracting coronavirus. I don’t really think it’s possible to social distance while protesting so wearing the mask is extremely important.

Alyssa Cole, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician specializing in cancer rehabilitation, Philadelphia

Why she protests: “We took the Hippocratic oath in medical school, pledging to ‘first, do no harm.’ The prevalence of racism and social disparities specifically in our health care system has done significant harm to my patients. From the lack of access to affordable health care to substandard medical treatment and limited resources, it is becoming more apparent that the Black community is systematically disadvantaged.”

COVID concerns: “As a physician, we always weigh the risks and benefits when it comes to implementing a treatment plan for our patients. Similarly, we weighed the risks and benefits of social justice versus social distancing. While this is a personal decision for many, it was clear to me that the benefit of bringing about change and ending racism through protesting far outweighs the risk of exposure to COVID-19."

How she stays safe: “In addition to washing my hands, avoiding touching my face, and working hard to maintain six feet from others, I also make sure to always wear a mask, have hand sanitizer with me, and wear my glasses instead of contacts. When not at work or protesting, I avoid public spaces as much as possible and have my groceries delivered.

Our medical community has banded together to protect protestors by handing out masks and hand sanitizer as well as ensuring people stay nourished and hydrated. Citizens have every right to make their voices heard. We are hoping our efforts to mitigate the spread of infection through these interventions will ensure they can exercise their First Amendment rights safely.”

Victoria Moors, MD candidate, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia 

Victoria Moors

Protest moment that’s made an impact: "Kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds at the White Coats for Black Lives protest on Friday was powerful. I know the kneeling is more about remembering George Floyd, and remembering Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the names and lives of other Black people who are dead because of racism, hate, and state-sanctioned violence. While I was sad and tearing up, I was also angry and mystified at how one man felt so emboldened by hate and indemnified by his position as a police officer, that he held his knee on someone’s neck, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. There are no good cops in a racist system.”

COVID concerns: “We will see what happens in a week or two with how protests impact COVID rates, which may alter my current lack of concern.” (Moors says she was diligent about wearing a mask, not touching her face, and using sanitizer.) “Fear of silence being violence is much greater than my fear of COVID.”

How to help from afar: “If racism is a virus, then we’ll need professional anti-racist training. I hope more institutions hire and financially support the wonderful therapists, social workers, and professionals who are skilled in this training. I am hoping my school and the medical industry as a whole continues to realize that the white medical gaze kills Black and Brown people, and the goal should be ethical medicine.”

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