A med student is caught between his community and his training.
The physician was seated on a stool in the center of the room. His white coat that had, with time, become a tan coat, brushed the carpeted floor like a curtain. Behind his large frame, I saw parts of the family: the leg of a brown little girl, the scarfed head and blank eyes of the mother, and the arm of her son who sat on her lap. Their skin contrasted starkly against the bone-white walls behind them and the bone-white man in front of them. The physician motioned his hand back toward the doorway I was standing in and said, “I hope you don’t mind; I have a medical student with me today.”
I walked in, smiled behind my mask, and nodded at the family, “Good afternoon.” The mother’s eyes widened and brightened a bit; “No, I don’t mind at all,” she said with an intonation of confounded delight. I found my corner of the room opposite to the door—still not fully seeing the family.
The physician proceeded to ask the mother about her son’s eating and sleeping habits, school, and home environment. Each time, the mother’s answer was directed over the doctor’s shoulder toward me as if I was the one asking. This continued until the physician asked the mother about interest in receiving the COVID vaccine; her eyes cut toward the doctor like an owl spotting a rat and she said, “No.” The type of no that preemptively bars all further interrogation.
A knock came from the door and the nurse popped her head in and said, “Sorry to interrupt but we need your help with something out here, doctor.” The physician turned to me and said, “It’s no problem; John, would you mind just doing a physical exam while I step out for a minute?” I nodded. The doctor stood;
his tan coat lifted from the floor to his calves and he walked toward the door—revealing the family.
The daughter’s hair was braided into intricate plaits that hung weighted to her shoulders by clacking white and green beads. She sat in a chair that swallowed her and looked at me with no assumption, as children do, while she nibbled the nail of her index finger. The son sat with his legs splayed over his mother’s right knee and his head nestled into her neck. His thick hair encased his head like a coarse and curly crown. The mother’s build was slender but strong like bamboo; her presence was both soft and firm like clay.
As the door shut, the mother asked, “So you’re about to be a doctor?” “Yes, ma’am,” I replied as I sat on the warm stool.
“Imma have to tell my husband about this. You know, we’on see too many brothers in medicine. Especially not Black doctors. I was so surprised to see you walk in. We know we in good hands when we see Black doctors because we know They didn’t give You nothing.”
The son grew restless as the mother and I told each other about where we were from and our paths that led us to Providence. After a moment of pause, I was able to transition the conversation toward the COVID vaccine.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it that’s concerning about the vaccine t’you?”
In a pitying mother’s tone, she said, “These white folks don’t care about us.”
I paused. She continued.
“They ran experiments on us. Tortured us. Had medication and didn’t give it to us …”
A familiar weight fell on my shoulders. I began to talk about my knowledge of injustices that Black people have had to endure historically when she cut me short.
“See, you talking about 40 years ago; I’m talking about right now. My sister was diagnosed with cancer. … The treatment costed too much. She’s dead. Dead. And now,” she chuckled, “they want me to believe that they’re gonna give me something for free that’s gonna save my life? … They can keep it.”
The words I had prepared in my lungs stopped in my throat and formed a heavy knot. The mother’s eyes were sad but dry; I assume there were no tears left. The daughter looked at me with drooped shoulders and loose arms—legs swinging above the floor. I fumbled through a transition to perform a physical exam. I placed my stethoscope over her son’s heart, but couldn’t hear anything over the sound of my racing thoughts.