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Racism inside the clinic: One physician’s story

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How would you react if a patient directed a racist tirade at you? Or insulted your gender, your sexual identity, your religion? You walk in to the room, ready to provide care, perhaps offering a chipper "Good morning," and in return they hurl demeaning slurs and insults. Sheer hatred aimed straight at your core.

This happened to J. Nwando Olayiwola, MD, an associate professor of medicine at UC-San Francisco. She described the experience in a powerful essay published recently in the Annals of Family Medicine:

He refused to shake my hand. "No way, no way, no way," he said... "There is no way I am letting a black woman take care of me... What happened to the real doctors, the white doctors?..."

Options raced through her head: Could she just leave? Should she find another doctor? Instead, Olayiwola writes:

As the patient continued to rant, I found myself doing what the powerless do; I tried to prove myself. I was now explaining to the patient and the case worker that I was qualified to take care of him, that I did go to medical school and have been in practice for many years.

Finally, it was done. He was gone. She continues:

Too sad to cry, too hurt to feel, too paralyzed to move, and too embarrassed to come out of the room, I sat and pondered over what happened. Racism had just completely and tectonically shifted the power away from me. Racism stripped me of my white coat, my stethoscope, my doctor’s badge, my degrees and credentials, my titles, my skills, and my determination to serve... I reflected on this the rest of the morning. How would I tell this story? What would the take-home lesson for my students and residents be? Was there more I could have done? Should have done?

The rest of the essay describes how Olayiwola found an unexpected source of comfort and rediscovered, and perhaps even improved, her confidence. It's well worth a read.

Previously: Former Brown University President Ruth Simmons challenges complacency on diversityIntel's Rosalind Hudnell kicks off Dean's Lecture Series on diversity and Panel on diversity calls for transformative change in society, courageous leadership from individuals
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