I heard the verdict in my car, driving from my birth home, Washington, DC to my new home, Baltimore, MD. I was stunned, my mouth agape and my mind muddled.
Thoughts raced that hot July night, but mostly I cried and prayed. That Sunday morning I awoke with some clarity, but more sadness and more determination to try to fix this perceived wrong. Reaching out for stability and peace that I can only find in God, I went to a church in the Gwynn Falls neighborhood of Baltimore. Its name, Progressive First Baptist, attracted me. I had never heard of the church before that day, but I was searching for something, and took the name as a sign. Maybe I was looking for justice, or a way to move forward from this deep pain or even a way to envision the world anew, because this could not be. This cannot be how the story ends.
That day at Progressive, two boys were christened and welcomed into the church community. One, three months, held by his father, and the other most likely five. They were brothers, protected by their mother, father, grandmother and godparents. They both black, like everyone else in the Church that day. Like me.
As I looked on as this father cradled his baby child and rocked him back and forth, I saw Trayvon, being cradled in his daddy’s arms. I saw Trayvon’s mother pushing him out of her womb and into the vast world. I saw all the hopes his mother and father had for their son. They wanted him to be protected, to be loved, to be healthy, and to be safe. All of the worries and joys of new parents. Any parent. They wanted him to live freely and without worry. To be happy.
This is a story of human rights; the right for children to enjoy the same social protection, regardless of gender, sex, race, ethnicity, religion or disability. The right of a teenager to walk through his neighborhood on a rainy day, with a hoodie and khakis on without being deemed suspicious, or on drugs, or “up to no good,” by a man with no probable cause for this judgment. Unfortunately, in the United States, this is not the case. All childhoods are not created equally.
Six days later, I am in the clinic seeing patients. A 16-year-old is on my schedule for two o’clock; a routine well child visit. I wrap up the visit with my 5-year-old and head into the room to where my two o’clock scheduled patient awaits. Like most teenagers, he is there with his mom, and his two younger sisters are also accompanying him that day. Seeing the doctor is always a family affair. He is tall and looks like he plays multiple sports. He lets his mother do most of the talking, and chimes in every now and then.
Mom has her concerns that seem to be normal adolescent behavior. I ask about school, about exercise and diet. His grades are slipping says his mother. He tells me that he is having difficulty in math, but loves science. He is even thinking of majoring in environmental science in college. He is popular in school, has friends — some that are a good influence, others not so much. We talk about exposure to violence. I ask mom has she had a conversation with him about how to deal with the police. Tears well up in her eyes, her voice becomes shaky. She says yes. She says she is scared for her son. She says she is staying on top of him. She says she just wants him to be safe, and to have a good experience in high school. These are her hopes.
As a pediatric resident a key component of our doctoring is giving anticipatory guidance to our patients and their parents. This guidance is developmentally appropriate, and functions to provide parents with practical information that they will need to know in order to keep their child safe, and to prepare them for their child’s next developmental milestone. It is our primary prevention, and it takes place at every visit.
We tell parents about the importance of having their child sleep on their backs when they are babies, locking cabinets storing common household cleaning supplies when they are toddlers, and the importance of autonomy and personal responsibility of a middle schooler. For our teenage patients we discuss use of contraception, prevention of sexually transmitted infections and preparing for the future. We screen all of our children for bullying, and at every age we always speak on exposure to violence, in the household, in the community, on the television and at school.
In this discussion we help advise our patients and families on strategies to avoid violence, and resources available in the community if they happen to be victims of violence. Luckily, I rarely have to address the issue of physical violence; however the shadow of intra-community violence is always lurking in the background. We tell our children, if you feel unsafe remove yourself from that situation and look for a safe space. Find a place where you can ask for help. This is basic, practical survival instinct.
However, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing a child, and the recent deaths of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, when their only crime was seeking out help when in a time of need, what anticipatory guidance do I give my patients and their parents? Where do my kids turn for help? I’m truly at a loss here. It’s frustrating when you are supposed to have the answers, but you do not.
Kendra McDow is a pediatrics resident.