Steve was special — even as an intern and first-year resident.
Out of more than two hundred letters of recommendation for our physician trainees I’ve written over the last fifteen years, I have only written this statement a few times: “Steve has the clinical acumen, integrity, work ethics and wonderful bedside manner that would give me full confidence in having him care for my family member.”
Steve eventually finished seven long years of medical training and got the opportunity to serve as a cardiologist in an underserved region of Maine. He and his family from the Middle East were excited about starting the next phase of their life with their J visa in the United States.
And then it happens.
A man in work jeans looks at Steve’s wife Renee, also a physician, at the local coffee store where she is standing in line with her two young children, ages three and seven.
“Where are you from?” he says.
“I am from Boston.”
“No, where are you really from?”
Renee is at a loss as to how to respond to the man in work jeans.
A tense moment occurs as he looks at her and her children.
“You should go back to where you belong, or else we will burn you,” he replies.
Renee tells her children to get into the car quickly. She locks the doors and shakes in the car uncontrollably while trying to call her husband. Without really understanding the words but recognizing the body language and the tone, her children are terrified.
Steve does not pick up the phone because he is treating a patient with a heart attack, unblocking the main heart artery with cardiac catheterization. He hears his patient tell him, “I don’t like your kind taking care of me … Is there anyone else? … Why are you even here?”
Steve and Renee’s story brings me back to my childhood. Growing up as a minority in Texas, I often felt “why am I even here?” By the time I was a teenager, I wished my eyes were less slanted, my nose was less flat, and my skin was more pearly white. Sticks and stones can break our bones — and so can words. Words, like as “gook” and “chink,” over and over can break us. The racial slur and subtle digs make an imprint on you as a young child.
Several months later, I caught up with Steve again by phone to try to give him encouragement.
“How is your family?”
“What you do you mean she left?!?”
“She left with the kids … back home.”
“Life is better back home. And I am going to join them.”
There is an uneasy silence over the phone. I feel an intense anger toward the man at the coffee shop. I am at a loss for words — much less the right words.
For his remaining months in Maine, Steve exhibits a grace I know I don’t possess. He continues to treat his patients with chest pain and congestive heart failure even when a particular patient does not like his accent or the color of his skin.
A week before his departure, Steve and I have brunch together at his favorite hotel — the place where he first stayed when he first interviewed for the residency program. We chatted about life as a minority in this country, life as a physician and life with our families.
“How are you doing?”
“I am good.”
“No, you are not, Steve. I’ve known you for years. You are not good. I can see it in your face.”
“I am sad to leave but am looking forward to seeing my wife and two children again. You know … I won’t miss the stares that I receive when I am at the local restaurant Maynards. I won’t miss that no one would sit with my daughter at the lunch table because of the color of her skin. I won’t miss the gas station attendant not making eye contact with me and throwing my receipt at me.”
“I am so sorry that some Americans are treating you this way.”
“Chi, I love this country. I love what this country represents. Over the last seven years, Americans have shown me time and time again the meaning of kindness and the pursuit of happiness. They have cared for me and my family. Last week when I met with my immigration lawyer for the last time, she was so embarrassed with what has happened to my family that she asked for her time to be a gift to me. I could pay her hourly rate, but she refused for me to pay her.”
We both have a figurative and literally sigh wondering what is in store for our families and the state of the country. We finish our brunch and meet later that afternoon for a great game of tennis. Each of us limp away sore from being out of shape. I say goodbye to Steve and dropped him off at the hotel, knowing that he was flying back “home.” We may not see each other again for a long time.
Our history is repeating itself. In a very direct way, we drove away Steve and Renee who came to the United States to study to be physicians and are helping an underserved population.
It is not so much our politics that are at stake but our humanity and decency. To the millions of Americans who understand the value of reconciliation, compassion and civil discourse, Steve taught me the meaning of grace and courage. It was the grace provided to Steve’s patient literally when his wife being discriminated. It is also the courage that we as physician leaders must continue to exhibit at the hospital and in society.
Let’s move forward.
Chi Huang is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com