The last time I cried was this past May in the brand new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. As I stood in the room where you hear and see clips from the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I was overwhelmed with emotion and began to cry uncontrollably. I was reminded of all the sacrifices millions of people have made that has allowed me to be a black physician in an interracial marriage. I also cried as I remembered some of the many struggles I have had finding my identity among my majorly white surroundings. I grew up often feeling weighed down by mostly self-imposed expectations to positively represent a group of people with my similar skin tone to my friends and community who would, jokingly and truthfully, refer to me as their only black friend. Lastly, I cried because there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to civil rights for all.
I try not to take the sacrifices of those before me for granted, and I do my best to focus this gratitude into pushing myself to be my best version, and most importantly, to use my talents and skills to help others. This desire to help others attracted me to primary care and public health and has led me to a growing passion for improving health systems. For though I smile and nod when many of my African American patients see me and tell me they’re proud of me, I believe my success means nothing if I can’t pay it forward.
The way I’ve chosen to pay it forward is not by focusing on civil rights in the most traditional sense, but by advocating for the right to health for all people no matter their socioeconomic class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
Like many of you reading this, I’m very fortunate. I have an amazing and supportive family. I’m blessed to be an American citizen and enjoy all the privileges it affords me. I’m thankful for my good health. Every day, when I go to work, I see so many people that aren’t quite as fortunate because of circumstances often out of their control or because of one unfortunate choice they made years ago. They often also need food, shelter, education, etc., and we as a society are starting to find ways to work together to address these needs that affect people’s health.
I love the World Health Organization’s description of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” I don’t know about you, but this is way beyond the scope of my training and what I can do in a hospital stay or an office visit. I do my best to be a good doctor and provide patient-centered, compassionate, and evidence-based care to my patients every day. If I’m to one day be a great physician, I need to help my patients and community achieve true health. To do this, I’ll need help. None of us can do it alone.
American author Barbara Ehrenreich once said, “The Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t just a couple of, you know, superstars like Martin Luther King. It was thousands and thousands — millions, I should say — of people taking risks, becoming leaders in their community.”
It’s a huge undertaking and incredibly difficult, but I can’t think of anything else more worth doing. No matter our position, or whether you are in the medical field, we all have an area of influence and opportunities to make a difference. It starts by asking questions of our community members what truly are their needs. Then we must take the next step and ask our businesses and organizations what they see their role is in addressing these issues. We can support our leadership in their endeavors or challenge them to do more. Most importantly, we must offer up ourselves to be part of the solution by using our talent, contacts, and leadership in helping our community. If this sounds too cumbersome, we can do little things like reaching out to our places of worship or simply sending an email to our local politician’s office. It may not seem like much, but every little bit can make a difference.
So as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and think back on all the people that sacrificed for us to be where we are today, I encourage you to pick up the baton and work together to help our communities and the next generation achieve true health.
Cleveland Piggott is a family medicine resident.