I spent the week in meetings discussing logistics and hospital preparations for the alt-right’s “Unite the Right” rally to be held this weekend in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA. We discussed the likely injuries that would occur, how we were going to decrease the hospital census to deal with potential overflow, methods of securing the campus, and the latest police updates.
On Friday afternoon I summed up our discussions with my medical ICU colleagues and then happily wrote an out of office message; because, lucky for me, vacation is starting and I’ll be out of town for all of this. I even went to bed early to get ready for a long drive to the Northeast. But then the text messages started coming, asking if I was ok and if I had made it out of town yet. There were white nationalists — with lit torches — marching and chanting anti-minority and anti-immigrant slogans through town.
I have always had a complicated relationship with Charlottesville. I love the small town atmosphere, the Blue Ridge Mountains and all the other things that have landed this small central Virginia town on multiple best places lists.
Yet, I grew up an hour’s drive away and remember hearing and reading stories of the racial tensions that would occasionally flare up. I later became an undergrad at the University of Virginia and experienced these tensions firsthand. While these tensions certainly were not isolated to Charlottesville, they seemed to amplify here due to the prominence of the University, its reverence for a founding father who owned slaves, and — more recently — its statues honoring the Confederacy.
Nevertheless, I was excited to move here five weeks ago to start my first job out of training. I managed to brush off the Ku Klux Klan rally that occurred during my first weekend. But this weekend, with its images of angry white men shouting with torches and the violence taking place steps from where I live, invokes the racial terrorism I studied in accounts from our history. The abstract is now intensely personal. A car plowed into a crowd of protesters in the same spot my son and I watched a music performance the week before. My life is forever changed.
A few months ago I wrote an argument — essentially to myself — that my professional obligation as a physician was to try to understand people who continue to support the political right as its more extreme white nationalist elements have infiltrated the mainstream discourse. I tried because I did not want to let my personal feelings potentially affect the way I deliver care.
But I also tried because I wanted to keep good relationships with friends and colleagues despite our profound disagreements. I tried, but I failed. I failed because “to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,” as James Baldwin so concisely stated. I failed because I am human, and I refused to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of accommodation. Rather than trying to reconcile, I decided to simply push these sentiments to a separate space in my professional life. A space where I learned early on in my training how to ignore my own needs (like food and sleep) for the sake of being available for my patients. Where I learned to ignore racist garb and statements when I encountered them. Where I learned to introduce myself as “Dr. Bell,” and quickly move in with a reassuring authority to occupy the awkward silence created if my presence elicited a split-second hesitation.
My belief was that creating this space allowed me to function well in my role as a care provider and hospital administrator. So throughout my discussions about hospital preparedness, I didn’t have to question how I would feel caring for someone injured while demonstrating against racial equality. If I’m their doctor, nothing else matters, and they will get my full effort. This strategy has worked well, but it has also left me with a blind spot. I wasn’t able to anticipate the images of racial terrorism blanketing the news coverage ahead of time and reflect on how it may affect me. I couldn’t visualize the death and destruction where I shared laughs and treats with my son just days before. I couldn’t see all of this happening in my new home. But now that I have seen and experienced this, my space to isolate these feelings is growing in my conscience. And I wonder for how much longer I can control it.
Taison Bell is an internal medicine physician.
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