Black men need to be comfortable saying that we can be scared sometimes, and to share our emotions without guilt or shame.
I say this as a Black man who has experienced vulnerability both as a family physician and as a patient. Over the last year, I’ve been challenged in unforeseen ways. In my professional life, I’ve cared for patients with COVID-19 and other chronic medical conditions, engaged as a clinician-educator in a virtual learning space, and tried to address vaccine hesitancy.
COVID-19 hasn’t been the only thing on my patients’ minds. Some have been struggling silently with a diagnosis of infertility. An estimated 12 to 15 percent of reproductive-age American couples have difficulty conceiving. Unfortunately, a common misconception can delay evaluation: Infertility challenges do not exist in the Black community, often stereotyped as super-fertile or more in need of birth control than fertility assistance. These assumptions that are both unfair and inaccurate.
And then there is the fact that among my male patients, the very topic of infertility can threaten a man’s sense of self or value. How do I know this? Well, now we’re getting into some of this past year’s personal challenges. I know because this is exactly how I felt as my wife and I struggled through our infertility journey during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve seen many patients wrestle with infertility and have been awed by the strength and courage they exhibited through the process. But these experiences didn’t entirely prepare me for my own initial struggles. Even as a practicing physician, the pain of knowing that something was “wrong,” and the fear of wondering if something was “wrong with me” caused me to delay seeking evaluation for a year of emotional roller coasters of hope and heartbreak.
To be scared as a physician while going through the unknown gave me a newfound sense of what my patients have to go through when the path ahead is hazy or uncertain. This experience has helped me connect with men who are afraid or secretly struggling with the weight and disappointment of this social stigma. Often a lot of attention is given to women who are going through changes or medical treatments for infertility, but we can do more to make sure the welfare of the men in these relationships is also supported, especially as up to 40 percent of cases of infertility are related to male issues. They, too, need a safe space to discuss their needs, which are not only physical, but also emotional and psychological.
I’ve been able to sit with patients and be a confidante, meeting them with empathy and sharing my own struggles while navigating this journey of infertility. This has been incredibly powerful, especially for Black men, who often feel ostracized, confused, or powerless, partly because of a lack of representation of Black men in the field of medicine. I love taking care of this group and providing primary care and journeying with them, even when painful diagnoses are given. Being a confidante in situations that can be emotionally wrecking for men has been a revelation and joy, particularly as I’ve received the same level of care and concern from other Black men.
There is a power in vulnerability. Unfortunately, our society often doesn’t allow Black men to be vulnerable. That is something that urgently needs to be challenged and changed.
Infertility awareness needs to be elevated and normalized, especially in the Black community and among men. That’s why I am writing this: to publicly share information that we too often only discuss within the doctor’s office. If you are struggling with infertility, many others are also in this painful place. And while it is understandable that you may not want to seek the help you suspect you need, it is better to do it sooner than later. I wish I had.
Our story has a happy ending. Thanks to our supportive families and excellent medical support, our firstborn son entered this world in August. I’m forever grateful for this experience, but if it weren’t for me being able to confide in a Black male physician and other safe spaces, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to have gone through a process that I’ve many times encouraged my own patients to explore.
We’re all building a sense of legacy. I hope that part of my legacy is encouraging more vulnerability and openness in the Black population about sensitive issues and continuing to be a safe space for my patients.
Carl Earl Lambert, Jr. is a family physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com