Two pandemics


This column is adapted from Dr. Eleryan’s speech at the George Washington University dermatology residency program’s virtual graduation ceremony on June 12.

I’ve been reflecting on my entire residency and the last 2 weeks have stood out the most. I have to admit that I’ve been angry, and so are numerous others who look like me. However, after conversations with a few important people in my life, I’ve realized that people care and are open to listening and changing if I give them the opportunity to see through my lens. I don’t want my legacy to be one of anger, but to be one of change, one of activism, one of heroism, and one of taking a stand in the midst of adversity.

So thank you to everyone who has played a part in my residency and is here to celebrate as I transition to the next step in my career.

Dr. Misty Eleryan, George Washington University, department of dermatology

Dr. Misty Eleryan

But I must pause for a moment to say “I can’t breathe.” I can’t breathe because while I sit here in a place of honor for my accomplishments, I can’t forget that I’m standing in the gap for all of the black men and women who will never have the opportunity to experience a moment like this.

I can’t breathe because George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Emmett Till, and so many others will never get to experience a celebratory occasion such as this because of their senseless executions as a likely result of racial bias.

As a black person in “the land of the free,” I have to live with the fact that my life may be taken for simply taking a stroll through a park, jogging through a neighborhood, driving down the street, walking back home from the store, or even sitting in my own home!

As a black physician, I must contend with the very notion that my privilege as a physician does not shield me from discrimination and bias. I recognize that my race walks into the room before I ever do. I know that many of my patients will question my abilities or my title – thinking I am the receptionist, food services worker, or even part of the janitorial staff – simply because of the color of my skin. And what’s even more disturbing is that some of my colleagues will confuse me with another black woman whom I look nothing like or challenge my intelligence and abilities and how I got my position.

All of this boils down to racism – pure and simple. Black people in this country don’t have the privilege of ignoring this truth. We know that this world is not colorblind; neither is anyone in it. We know that this is entrenched racism that for generations has created racial disparities in health care, education, housing, employment, and law enforcement. We weren’t born into a fragile or vulnerable state, yet we were born into a system of dis-enfranchisement, dis-investment, dis-crimination, dis-advantage, and dis-respect.

As physicians, we must recognize and acknowledge the lived experiences that walk through the door with our black patients. And we must understand that black patients walk around with the effects of trauma and toxic stress from just being black in America. That trauma and stress show up in very real ways that contribute to black people experiencing the brunt of chronic diseases and poorer health outcomes. There is no better example than the current COVID-19 pandemic. We are in the midst of a global pandemic from a virus that does not discriminate based on race, but black people are almost three times as likely to be hospitalized as are white people with COVID-19 . And why is that? Because of the “comorbidity” of racism that black people in this country live with. It is not a mere coincidence that the black population is overrepresented in essential jobs and black people are more likely to work in health care than are white people – all positions that increase the risk of infection and death from the virus. So, if we call COVID-19 a pandemic, racism most certainly has been a pandemic that this country has refused to acknowledge, treat, and vaccinate for centuries. We cannot ignore that both have tragically affected black people.

So as Pastor Reginald Sharpe Jr. in Chicago recently said, we’re dealing with two pandemics: One has no vaccination and one has no explanation; one can physiologically take your breath away because it affects the respiratory system, while the second can also take your breath away. Just ask Eric Garner and George Floyd.

As physicians, we must recognize that the mechanisms that tragically resulted in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other black men and women are the same mechanisms that are harming and killing black people in our health care system. It’s not acceptable for institutions that built themselves on black and brown bodies to offer condolences, but to continue to do nothing about the racism that still runs rampant within. It’s not acceptable to do nothing. It’s important to note: Racist systems do not perpetuate themselves – the individuals operating within them do.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Being well-intentioned, good-hearted, sad, or disheartened is not enough. We won’t be able to tear down the systems and institutions that have been a breeding ground for racism until outrage is met by action, not just from black people and people of color, but also by the white majority.

As physicians it’s time for us to look at how our health care institution – an institution instrumental in the victimization of black people – is affecting the health and well-being of our black patients. (For example, increased maternal mortality among black women.)

Are they being seen and heard? Are they receiving culturally relevant and sensitive care? Are their needs and concerns receiving the same amount of time and attention as other patients? It’s time to understand that, for many black patients, the health care system is another place of injustice that has not proved itself to be trustworthy or inclusive of black culture.

As physicians, we must affirm that the lives and health of black and brown people matter to us, that we see the racism they experience, and that we will use our platform as physicians to eliminate racism not just in the hospitals but in the world our patients live in.

So while I didn’t choose the body that I was born into, I fully embrace it and the challenges that come with it. I’m not here to make people feel comfortable, I’m here to continue the work of my ancestors, accomplish the dreams that they fought and lost their lives for, and most importantly, I’m here to continue the fight against the systems that work to prevent other marginalized persons from getting to where I am and even further.

The author James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So, I urge you to be loudly antiracist in every space that you hold. I urge you to educate yourselves about racism and white supremacy and privilege and how it permeates our health care system. I urge you to stand beside black people rather than in front of them. Use your privilege to amplify underheard voices and to challenge the biases of your peers, friends, and family members. Use your platform as physicians to advocate for a more just and equitable health care system.

So let me repeat ... we as physicians have the responsibility to eliminate racial bias in the practice of medicine and recognize racism as a threat to the health and well-being of black people and other people of color.

How do we do this? We are beyond lengthy dialogue and “Black History Month” talks. Now is the time for action. Taking action includes the following:

1. Medical academic institutions committing to having a diverse and inclusive faculty. We know it is critical and vital to the recruitment, success, and matriculation of medical students and residents of color to see faculty, particularly senior level faculty in their specialty, who look like them and can serve as mentors. Every year, these institutions need to set a goal that they will take additional steps to have at least one-third of their faculty be black and another third persons of color. In addition, senior faculty positions – those setting curricula, selecting incoming students and residents – must include at least one-third from underrepresented backgrounds (black, Hispanic, Native American/Indigenous).

2. Hospital administration has to resemble the communities in which the hospital serves. Unfortunately, all too often, we know this is not the case, and as a result, decisions that affect the care of black and brown people are often to their detriment because they perpetuate the racism within the existing system. In order to dismantle racism in the hospital system, hospital administrations must consist of diverse individuals. Therefore, hospitals need to commit to hiring and promoting black and brown staff to ensure one-third of its senior leaderships consists of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds.

3. Improving the pipeline that matriculates black and brown students into medical school and residency programs. Lack of access to mentors within the medical field, lack of funding for travel to/from interviews, and lack of knowledge of the overall application process are a few barriers faced by students of color seeking to enter into the medical field. In addition to current scholarship opportunities, medical schools need to allocate funds to connect underrepresented minority students with a range of lived experiences (not just those from impoverished backgrounds but also those from middle class backgrounds who face difficulty gaining acceptance into medical school and residency programs), such as connecting them with mentors by opening opportunities for them to shadow professionals at a conference, travel to residency interviews with most, if not all, expenses covered up front, and have access to local programs that expose them to physicians in several specialties.

These are just a few examples of the active steps we can take to dismantle racism and reconcile the effects of it in the medical field. So if I may borrow from other movements, “Time’s Up” for silence regarding the existence of racism and white supremacy, and now it’s time to truly show that “We are all in this together.”

It is not just my duty but yours also – to ensure that we never have to hear another black man, woman, or child say “I can’t breathe” at the hands of injustice.

Dr. Eleryan (@skinclusionMD) is a social justice activist and was co-chief resident in dermatology (2019-2020) at George Washington University, Washington, DC, and is an Alpha Omega Alpha inductee (2020). She will be a micrographic surgery and dermatologic oncology fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, in July 2020.

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