When news started coming in that throngs of protestors were gathering in Chicago to protest the horrific killing of George Floyd, my initial feelings of anger were tempered by a hope that maybe this time things would turn around for our black brothers and sisters. Quickly, as the protests became infiltrated with violence, and I saw more and more photos of my old neighborhood looted or boarded up, the hope turned to sadness. As the violence hit close to our clinic, sadness became despair. When questioning the shifts of my own reactions, I had to dig deep.
I like to think that I do not hold any biases, that I treat all of my patients the same, and that I am “woke.” But my mind keeps spinning back to a particular African-American teenager I last saw in January of this year. We will call her Dania. Dania is beautiful, smart, quiet, and humble. She takes public transit to school every day, where she is one of the only black kids, makes straight As, does ROTC, and loves dancing. She had recently lost her chronically ill mother, and it was never clear to what. Dania was only sixteen at the time; I never once saw her cry, never complained about her situation, and always wore a smile.
She always came in with her grandmother, a breast cancer survivor. A spitfire, a mama bear to the 100th degree, she would become visibly anxious if I closed the exam room door, so I’d always leave it slightly open. When it came time for the confidential questions I always ask my teens, she refused to leave Dania’s side. She would often get very upset about vaccines I suggested, lab work I proposed. Once she disagreed with me so much about a recommendation I had made, she hung up the phone on me and called my staff horrible things. I had done everything right. Why was she looking for a diagnosis when there wasn’t one? What was she worried about? What was she protecting Dania from? And most of all, why were my staff and I bearing the brunt of her anger?
I wrote a well-composed letter, making clear that rude behavior would not be tolerated in our office. While I stand by what I wrote, I can see now that I made it about me. What I didn’t acknowledge was that this was way bigger than me. Her reaction to me was the result of generations of mistreatment by authority figures, including law enforcement and yes, doctors. This was karmic payback, so to speak. I didn’t cause the hurt directly, but would have to accept some degree of complicity before I could move forward with my relationship with her. If I were to do my job as a physician, I would have to help heal not just Dania, but also her grandmother’s pain. And in order to do that, I would first need to recognize my shortcomings, my lack of understanding.
I don’t know where Dania is today. Now when her name pops up on my schedule from a previously scheduled appointment, we call, and we can’t reach her. I wonder if she’s safe, whether she’s out there with the protestors or shuddered, scared, in her home. I wonder if her neighborhood is surrounded by violence. I want to speak with her now, even with her grandmother, ask her what she thinks of all this. How does she manage? Des she feel traumatized all the time? Does she live in constant fear for herself and Dania? Is that why she never left her side in our office, never let me close the door?
When George Floyd’s family and Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at his memorial service, they said black mothers are often the only thing keeping black children from the cruelty of the world, that even though George Floyd’s mother had passed away, he whispered “mama” as he was dying. But I hope that his death is not in vain; I hope Dania and her grandmother see all the people on the streets speaking out for them. I hope she can connect with them, and maybe even one day again with me. Maybe this time I’ll listen a little closer, understand a little deeper, and heal a bit better.
Nidhi Kukreja is a pediatrician.
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