I wrote a different essay for this blog several weeks ago. But after the events of the past few weeks, that essay now seems irrelevant. In the midst of a national public healthcare crisis, a new crisis has emerged, one that is as much a threat -if not more so- to the wellbeing of our nation and its people. The recent brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have made obvious the ongoing horrific practice of police brutality towards African Americans in America. As peaceful protests are growing in number and strength around the country and the world, we are facing a reckoning here in the U.S. that should have happened centuries ago, but shamefully did not.
This weekend, I showed my 3-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son a video of the protestors, their marches, their heartbreak, their collective anger and frustration. “Take your knee off our neck!” they chanted. My son, curious and innocent, asked me why they were saying that. I explained what it meant, at least the literal meaning, knowing he is too young to understand that it reflects not only the brutal murder of a Black man, but also the figurative, systemic oppression of Black people by our society. I imagine I speak for many of us who come from a place of racial privilege when I say that I feel overwhelmed at how to begin to respond to this deep-rooted injustice. My heart is heavy.
For now, I am dealing with it in small ways, as best I know-how. As a parent, I am reading biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi to my son. We are watching videos of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and learning about the civil rights movement. We are reading books at bedtime like, “Amazing Grace,” “Fireflies for Nathan,” “Brown Sugar Babe,” in which the main characters are African American children or families. At the dinner table, we discuss race and racism, respect, dignity, equality. We are talking about overcoming hate with love. It’s not enough, but it is something.
My husband and I are both surgeons, and we moved to East Carolina University in Greenville, NC a little over a year ago. Although we are not lawmakers or government officials, we have been reflecting about how we- as surgeons- can more intentionally combat racism and racial inequalities in our work as well. As faculty members of a state institution with a mission to improve the health status of citizens of eastern North Carolina, we have the privilege of caring for many vulnerable and underserved patients, the majority of whom are African Americans. We are committed to ensuring that our patients have access to the same high-quality surgical care, clinical trials, and compassionate treatment as anyone else in this country. In light of these recent events, we both feel a renewed sense of purpose and pride in carrying out this mission.
Since moving to ECU, our research efforts have also centered around this same objective, specifically the persistent racial disparities observed in patients with pancreatic and colorectal cancer. African American patients present with more advanced disease and have worse survival than White patients, even among those with early-stage disease. These disparities seem to be the result of differences in access to preventative screening, quality cancer care, and general medical care, not to mention the effects of coexisting social determinants of health, systemic racism, and discrimination. Understanding and working towards eliminating these disparities feels even more pressing now.
I am proud to have surgeon friends and colleagues similarly working to address racial disparities in access to emergency surgical care, microaggressions in the surgical workplace, and minority access to and participation in cancer clinical trials. There are surgeon educators devoted to improving diversity within medical school and surgical training, and many academic leaders committed to combatting racial bias during hiring and academic promotion. We may not be legislators, but surgeons have tremendous opportunities to fight racism and discrimination in our field and for our patients.
To put it plainly, there is much work to be done.
The AAS leadership recently issued a powerful statement condemning systemic racism and oppression targeting people of color (https://www.aasurg.org/), and the statement concludes with a critical call to action. Some of the steps we will take individually and collectively may be small and tedious, and others grand and triumphant. But we- surgeons, parents, friends, colleagues, leaders- must do something.
I recently read about a poet and community activist, “Assétou Xango,” who urged her readers, “If you take away nothing else, I want you to remember that violence never starts with violence. It always begins with a callous word or a shrug of indifference.”
In writing this post, I am self-conscious that I am speaking from a place of privilege, but I aim to do so as an ally to those who experience racism and discrimination firsthand. As the AAS leadership has urged us, conversation is better than silence. So I urge you: be frustrated, be angry, be saddened, be ashamed. Don’t be indifferent.