When I started medical school, my classmates and I attended a special ceremony where we stood in front of our friends, family, and professors and recited some modern version of the Hippocratic Oath. For years afterward, I only remembered the “do no harm” bit, which is a lazy approximation of the actual words. I recently reread the oath, and even though I’d completely forgotten, it also said this: “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” This tenet, perhaps more than any other, is critically important to remember now.
These days, it often feels like America is eagerly feeding a toxic, suffocating atmosphere of “otherness,” where fear and hatred is inflamed by the tiniest differences between us. But I am a primary care doctor. I work for a safety net clinic and for a prison. I have made a very deliberate decision to build my career around helping people who have not been as fortunate as I have, no matter what our differences may be.
And in a strict sense, I am very different from the people on my patient panel. Some of them are part of the LGBTQ community. The majority are people of color. A few patients don hijabs, some yarmulkes, and others fading teardrop tattoos. I care for people who have been incarcerated, or who are currently incarcerated. Some wear shirts bearing confederate flags and some sport marijuana leaves. My patients come from all over the world. Several are undocumented, and many do not speak my language. But they all enter the exam room as patients, as people.
I know that some of my patients harbor beliefs that I disagree with or despise. To that end, I will never abide hate or intolerance in the exam room, just as I hope to intervene when I see it in my community. But these things rarely come up. Patients don’t want to talk about race, religion, or war. Since they wonder about the new administration’s impact on their health and livelihoods, they may broach the topic of politics. But for the most part, they come to me for answers, for relief, and for support. To the best of my abilities, I can provide them with that much.
Look, we are all ultimately the same on the inside, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. When I lay hands on a patient, I always hear a beating heart. Everybody breathes, everybody blinks, everybody poops. We’re all basically equal on the inside, so why should that change once we venture beyond the skin?
More than ever, I’ll perform medicine and conduct myself with those Hippocratic ideals in mind. It’s my job after all, but it’s also the right thing to do, and it’s also what I want to do. It’s one small contribution to progressive, forward momentum; to keeping otherness and fear and hate from consuming me and the people I care for. And it gives me hope to know that millions of people, in their own ways, are doing the same.
Alia Moore is an internal medicine physician.
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