'There Are Constant Battles': Dr. Michele Harper Opens Up About Racism in the Emergency Room

If we had more healthcare providers with differing physical abilities and health challenges, who didn't come from wealthy families… that would be a strong start. Studies show that these doctors tend to be more empathetic to their patients.

But, and perhaps most critically, people have to be held accountable when it comes to racism.

Often, a medical work environment can be traumatic for people (and specifically women) of color. Sometimes our supervisors don’t understand.

When we do experience racism, they often don't get it and may even hold us accountable for it. For example, I had a patient who, when I walked into the room and introduced myself, cut me off and said, "Okay, yeah, well, this is what you're going to do for me today." She really didn't know anything about medicine. This was a middle-aged white woman, and she certainly didn't know anything about me because I had just walked into the room and said my name.

So I explained to her the course of treatment and she just continued to bark orders at me. Eventually she said, “I come here all the time and you're the only problem.” I'm also the only Black doctor she's seen, per her chart.

I kept thinking, “This is absurd.” Part of me was laughing inside because she thought she could be so ignorant and inappropriate. The other part of me was pissed off that she felt so entitled to behave so indecently.

My ER director said that she complained. My boss’ stance was, "Well, we can't have this, we want to make her happy because she works here." And I said, "She's racist, I literally just said my name," and I repeated what happened. I continued, "So her complaint is not valid. There was nothing to complain about. Her behavior was out of line."

My director's initial response was just, "Well, you should be able to somehow handle it anyway.” That is not acceptable, and yet these situations happen constantly. So not only are we the subject of racism but then we're blamed for the racism and held accountable for other people's bad behavior.

Working on the frontlines of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, in a predominantly Black and brown community, I’ve treated many essential workers: grocery store employees, postal workers. Their stories weigh heavily on my heart. They’d tell me the same thing: we’re all getting sick. The bosses know we’re getting sick, but won't let us take off until it gets to the point where we literally can't breathe. We need to support our essential workers, which means having a living wage, affordable housing, sick leave and healthcare.

One of the grocery clerks who came in, a young Black woman, told me she didn’t know if she had the will to live anymore.

She and I spoke for a long time about how she had no one to talk to, and now because of coronavirus, she was even more alone than she used to be. She was being sexually harassed at work and the customers treated her horribly.

I asked her if there was anything we at the hospital could do, after I made sure she wasn't in physical danger and wasn't going to kill herself. She said no and that she felt safe. What she ultimately said to me after our conversation was, “I just wanted to talk and now, after meeting with you, I feel better.” She felt well enough to continue living.

That’s why we need to address racism in medicine. Because if the person caring for you is someone who hears you, who truly understands you — that’s priceless.

  • As told to Morgan Smith

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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