I was sitting in my car on the phone when I heard the news. My boyfriend and I were chatting while I was driving to my parents’ house to have dinner. He mentioned to me that he had something to tell me and wanted to wait until I had stopped driving and had a chance to had dinner. My stomach is strong from having little time to eat and lots of time to hear bad news. I told him I could handle whatever he could tell me after I ran through a laundry list of bad things it could be. I wondered about whether he was dying or if his dog had died. It briefly crossed my mind to ask him if I was dying or if I was pregnant. I pulled over to listen. A usually talkative man, He had grown strangely quiet as I prattled on about what happened when I was in clinic that day. He was sure that my car was parked when he told me that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted for murder in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
I sat for a second, feeling a sinking sensation in my stomach and crushing chest pain. I sat for a moment with my arms in my jacket sitting on my hands on my thighs, trying to practice the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding technique. I took a deep breath and thought about whether or not I would be able to get into the house. I quickly ushered him off the phone and told him we would talk later. I sat for what felt like a long time in my car and turned off the radio. In my long coat and combat boots, I barreled, unhinged into my childhood home, and sat down to process what I had just heard.
As I sat there, sitting at the kitchen table, I thought about what this meant for me. A YouTube video came out a few years ago when I was in college which described Calling in Black. I won’t spoil the details of such a beautiful video, but Evelyn describes what it is like to be Black and watch horrible things happen to other Black people and have to go to work. I heard the news, and I barely ate that night. I just picked at my dinner and thought about how I might be able to fill my empty stomach that felt so full of sadness.
I didn’t know how I was going to go back to being a normal person after this. I didn’t know, and still don’t know, how I am going to be able to feel safe in my Midwestern town. I thought about how I was going to be able to continue living in the United States as a Black woman. I thought about the children I do not have yet and how I will protect them.
As a budding physician and a young Black woman, I think about all the people I have the privilege of trying to protect. I think of all the people who I partner with in their health. I think about how the little Black girls see me with my stethoscope wrapped around my neck and my sparkly gym shoes. I think about how I bedazzle myself to be a fairy godmother and to prepare to do the work of healing. I think about how it is going to be nearly impossible for me to partner with them on this journey as I am so hurt, but so unsurprised. How am I supposed to show up every day in my most selfless form and listen unabashedly? I thought about all the trauma that would show up to my clinic and all the people who I would be taking care of who wouldn’t be able to breathe, just like me, in the morning. This is the work of trauma. This is the work of an inability to remove people from terrible environments. But no one talks about when the people who do the care work become traumatized themselves.
I think about the riots that are happening in response to this. How am I going to protect people who are protesting and hurt. I cannot, and would not, counsel them to stop—but how will I keep my composure when I take care of them. I cannot separate myself from them and be an objective party caring for them as I normally am with all of my patients. And this also begs the question of how I will provide care to patients who openly support Kyle Rittenhouse wounded and murdered.
I wanted to end this article with specific and tangible steps Black people could take to care for themselves and what allies to Black people can do to care for us right now. I am out of answers. I don’t know when I or anyone else will have any other answers. But right now, the best thing anyone can do is bear witness to our pain. Bare witness to watching us sit in call rooms not being able to breathe. Bear witness to every time your Black colleague holds a Black baby so close after being in the operating room with him, since we are so afraid of what our hospital and what our world will do to him. Bear witness to the times when we spend a little too much time with little Black children every day they spend in the hospitals when their families are not there with them. We are helpless. We are so absolutely helpless.
Micaela Stevenson is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com