At approximately 12:02 pm August 9th 2014, an 18 year old black male named Michael Brown was shot in the street of Ferguson, MO by a police officer named Darren Wilson. His body laid on the ground for 4.5 hours.
At exactly 2:00 pm December 10th 2014, a group of about 30 medical students laid down in the middle of the floor at a medical school in Des Moines University for 4.5 minutes.
As I laid down I was struck first by how uncomfortable it was. I restrained myself from squirming. The second thing I noticed was the flashing lights from the camera that were documenting this event so we could post to Facebook and Twitter later. I wondered whether or not Michael Brown saw flashing lights of cars going past before he decided. I wondered if he was uncomfortable on the ground. I hoped his death was quick. One thought was most clear: I don’t want to die like this.
In the hours before the event I heard a lot of criticism about the idea in general, some more valid than others. One point that struck me was the purpose of the white coat. Why use this symbol of power and privilege in order to get the message across? Is it okay for physicians to be activists? Is it okay for physicians to be political?
I think it’s high time to stop hiding behind a veil of objectivity. There is no part in our creed that says we cannot speak out against injustice. There is nothing that says we must only focus on the patient directly in front of us. That’s not saying that every physician must take a stand against every issue, but to deny the public health aspect of these cases is to deny reality. To deny the public health aspects of racism is to deny reality. As I mentioned in my Tim Wise piece there are huge disparities between black and white Americans even when you take into account socioeconomic status and education. Black women in this country with college degrees have higher rates of infant morality than white women who hold high school diplomas. How is that not a public health issue? What about the research showing that healthcare workers subconsciously perceive blacks as feeling less pain than whites? These are things that I’m glad are being talked about in our classrooms and in our community, as there is no way we can be the best providers possible if we don’t do our damnedest to understand our patient’s lives.
I also think that the white coats are a way of not presuming our own innocence. Historically, the medical community has done really horrible things to marginalized communities, we have stole their bodies from their graves, experimented on them without their consent, and have not allowed them in our ranks. This is the history of the medical community and to ignore it does a disservice to our patients who may be rightfully skeptical. How can we just expect people to put their lives in our hands if we don’t at least recognize the valid reasons why they may not automatically trust us?
Furthermore, no matter how important it is to try and understand the “other” nothing is going to change unless we look at our own house first. I hope that #WhiteCoats4BlackLives helps further a conversation in ourselves about what kind of physicians we want to be. I know I want to be one who stands up for marginalized communities, one who isn’t afraid to confront her own biases, one that puts patient’s first not just on an individual level, but a systemic one as well. And I have a feeling that’s the type of physician patients want to see as well.