We really do have a problem

“Wisdom comes only when you stop looking for it and start living the life the Creator intended for you. “


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Dr. Martin Luther King


My grandparents were often described decent people. The definition: “conforming to generally accepted standards of respectable or moral behavior” is a fitting description of them. They were not perfect but to me they were.  Many times, we would often wish a spanking from my grandmother rather than what my uncles called one of her “sermonettes. Her father, my great-grandfather was a Baptist Minister. She could quote the Bible from memory. When we even mentioned being bored, she handed us the Bible, the dictionary or the Encyclopedia and expected us to read it.. My grandmother was our childcare provider while our parents worked. These sermonettes required us to listen as she called upon us to be decent and caring people.  She wanted us to be better than those around us. She required us to be in church on Sunday mornings and with one look put a stop to any misbehaving. The “Golden Rule” was an essential theme in many of those sermonettes.  To paraphrase, “Do to and say about others what you would have done to and said about you.” My grandfather was just a gentle giant.  Kind, loving and respected by everyone.

I took those lessons to college and to Medical School and it influenced how I cared for my patients. From the first day of my internship, it became apparent that not everyone learned how to be decent.  I had to work hard to do all my notes. One attending critiqued each one to make sure they were grammatically correct and accurate. I went in to admit a patient and she kindly asked me to leave.  I was black and she was obviously a very wealthy white female.  Interns did the admitting history and physical on all admissions on the teaching service. I was happy to be sent away.  It meant I could leave early right after our  sign-out.  Well much to my dismay, I was summoned back to the nurse’s station and told to go back in and do the admission. It seems that my attending had told the patient that if she wanted to stay in the hospital she must be admitted by me, Dr. Washington, the Black female intern. The patient looked at me and said” It looks like you and I  are going to have to work together.” I ended up leaving late but I left with a sense of accomplishment.  I was fortunate enough to hear a story marked with pain, suffering and disappointment.  I paid her the respect I was taught to give to all patients and she responded.

It is obvious that more people should have had the benefit of listening to my grandmother and being in the presence of my grandfather. She has been gone from my life for over 10 years but I still carry the imprint of her love and guidance.

Racism, sexism, and fear  are impacting every aspect of our lives. In medicine, it is impacting the diversity of our workforce and increasing health disparities.  As we recognize the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, we see the erosion of the very values he stressed in his sermons and in his life. I often reread some of those sermons to gather inspiration. The January issue of the Society for Teachers of Family Medicine Journal is dedicated to looking at the issue of racism and highlighting departments that are addressing this complex problem.  From the Editor:

“We must create spaces that are more inclusive and recognize our unconscious biases. We need to commit to fighting injustice in health care and ensuring families can live well to the best of their ability. The real work to make this a reality will have to occur in every single medical practice and training program in the nation.”

Bich-May Nguyen, MD, MPH


 “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King

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