In the past week, hospital staff across the country have joined the protest against the racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless others. Some have marched in white coats echoing “no justice, no peace” down the streets of their cities. Others have laid down in solidarity for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the exact length of time the police officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck. No matter the method of protest, the same sentiment stands: Racism is a public health issue. And these doctors are unwilling to stay silent. Women’s Health spoke with three MDs who are protesting to share their perspectives.
“There’s this false dichotomy that physicians either have to believe in the lockdown or the protests.”
—Danielle Belardo, M.D., Philadelphia, PA
I’m a cardiologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’ve been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic and take it incredibly seriously. When the virus was at its peak, I was redeployed from cardiology to internal medicine to help treat severe patients. And I’ve had to watch some of them die from the virus. I also have a niece who has leukemia and is immunocompromised. So I do not take COVID lightly by any means. But I completely support the protests that have been occurring.
When people ask me, “How is it that a physician who was so concerned about COVID, is suddenly supporting the protests?” my reasoning is simple: Everyone, every day takes a personal risk assessment to determine their health needs. And we cannot ignore that human rights are an undeniable need.
So for some people who have medical conditions or individual circumstances and are unable to take the risk of doing the protest, they can impact change from home.But for those of us who’ve decided to to really work towards making our voices known about all of the systemic racism and injustice that has happened to black individuals in this country—there are plenty of safe ways to protest. My husband and I went to three protests in the past week because it was worth the risk. And the truth is, we take the same calculated risk whenever we go outside—when we to the grocery store or when you’re going to pick up medications.
“My husband and I were able to keep close to 6 feet away from others during all three protests.”
We watched George Floyd get murdered. And so, the way that I reconcile this as a physician who cares about COVID is that if you are going to go outside to protest, which I fully support, because Black Lives Matter, do so following the same safety precautions you regularly would during COVID-19: Wear a mask, practice hand hygiene (washing your hands or using sanitizer), keep your distance, and get tested. My husband and I were able to keep close to 6 feet away from others during all three protests.
There’s this false dichotomy that physicians either have to believe in the lockdown or the protests. But what people don’t understand is that these protests are for human rights—for black lives. Every large national medical organization, including in my specialty—the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, the Association of Black Cardiologists, the American Society of Echocardiography—have all come out with statements explaining that racism, social injustice and systemic racism, these are health issues and we as physicians have to be concerned about this.
We took an oath to care about our patients. And voicing our concerns and standing up to systemic racism is a part of that.
Danielle Belardo, MD, is a cardiologist and director of cardiology for the Institute of Plant-Based Medicine (IOPBM).
“What people fail to understand is that racism is a public health issue.”
—Jessica Shepherd, M.D., Dallas, Texas.
For me, being a part of the protests and speaking out against racial injustice is multi-layered. In my position as a black physician, which was very hard-fought for (we only make up a tiny fraction of medical professionals!), I have to stand up for people who look like me, who could be my family or friends. SoI stand up against inequalities first and foremost because I am black. Period.
On the other side of that, the healthcare system isn’t immune to systemic racism, and we have to be held accountable for it. So the fact that I’ve had the privilege to be in the system—I have another responsibility as a black physician, to make sure that I’m also recognizing that the systemwill differentially allocate, whether it’s vital goods or resources, in an unfair and disadvantageous way. Whether we discriminate based on insurance status or there are resource gaps that disproportionately impact black communities. Those are forms of institutional racism. And that’s why my job as a black physician is to actively work to dismantle those practices and policies.
“I’m glad I did it. People can criticize all they want.”
On Sunday, June 7, myself and dozens of other healthcare professionals, physicians, medical students, and residents filled the streets of Dallas and protested with White Coats for Black Lives. Part of the protest involved lying on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds in solidarity with George Floyd. And I’m glad I did it. People can criticize all they want. But while I was lying there, in my head, all I could imagine was: someone was in this position. I remember there were three moments where I had to adjust myself because I was uncomfortable. And I just thought—George Floyd didn’t have that option. He couldn’t say “Oh, you know, my shoulder feels a little uncomfortable.” And even just sensing that lack of freedom brought tears to my eyes.
What people fail to understand is that racism is a public health issue, and that’s why we protest. To those concerned about our safety, it was actually pretty easy from a healthcare perspective to take the same guidelines that apply to decreasing the transmission of COVID and use them during the protests. Wear a mask. Try to social distance. But also recognize that protests are emotional, and people will have feelings of anger, sadness, fear, helplessness, exhaustion, and even rage that won’t always make it easy to follow precautions. Make sure to leave space for that too.
Jessica Shepherd, MD, is a board-certified obgyn and Women’s Health advisory board member.
“It was the first time, other than going to the grocery store, that my partner and I had left the house in months.”
—Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., Washington, D.C.
Being a psychiatrist and working in mental health, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent deaths from police violence is definitely impacting my patients. They’re experiencing increased amounts of depression, anxiety, and stress. And seeing that has made me want to get involved and encourage broader national change.
Racism is a pandemic too. And going to the protest last weekend felt like a way for me to have some type of agency. It was the first time, other than going to the grocery store, that my partner and I had left my house in months. But it felt worth the risk to be getting my voice outthere. Change happens on a personal level. And it’s really easy to get overwhelmed and feel demoralized about all the awful things that are happening. So for me, one small way to feel like I’m part of something bigger is to go to a protest.
A post shared by Pooja Lakshmin MD | Psychiatry (@womensmentalhealthdoc)
It feels really good to be surrounded by other people who are dedicated and motivated toward the same cause. I don’t think that protesting is enough by any means. You also need to take concrete actions in your everyday life. But for me, I think protests are a place where you can get the energy to do all the other things like donate, have important conversations with family, advocate for yourself at work, etc.
Luckily, I’m not someone who is high-risk for COVID-19. But for folks who are elderly, orare immune compromised, it may not make sense for them to protest. I think everybody has to make that decision for themselves. And know that if you physically can’t be there, that doesn’t mean that you’re any less committed to the cause.
Pooja Lakshmin, MD, is a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University.
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