DISCLAIMER: Despite its title, this post is not about racist cops and other predators.
First, a background: I work in the medical field. With patients, and patient’s families. Care-takers. People of all ages. Mostly men. Mostly white. Most of them straight.
And this is how a typical visit of a typical day goes. I go to the lobby, call patients’ first name. Introduce myself: get asked to spell it or told I have a pretty name. I take the patient into a small room with a scale where I ask them to step on it while they answered [demography] questions such as last name/date of birth/height/what they would like to be referred to as [“You can call me anything, just not late for dinner”, HaHa]. Then I walk them to an exam room. There I would take the Doctor’s chair, while the patient sits across from me, and ask a few more questions. What, in the profession, are called “vital signs”: reason for visit/accompanying pain/any hospital stay in the last month, allergy/medication change, name of Primary Care Physician/pharmacy, any other concern they want their provider [my doctor] to address – what is called a “secondary” complaint, i.e. reason, for the visit.
That, at least, is how the “rooming” process ought to go. But it doesn’t. In my attempt to make them feel comfortable and at home, I usually start by asking how their drive here was, I comment on the horribleness of parking in Seattle, mention how I heard there was a big line at the check-in counter downstairs.
They, in their turn, ask where I am [originally] from, how long I have lived in America, if English is the working-language in my country [so how come I speak it so well after such a short stay here?]. There would be compliments galore: on my “beautiful” accent, on my warm smile, on my cute face [my freckles, my “botton nose”, my hair do].
If we have more time, and when we sometimes don’t, they ask how I found America. How I found the medical profession. How I feel about the current political environment.
They do not do this only for educational purposes. Most, if not all, do it because America has become tribal and people feel the need to choose sides wherever they go. Show where they were and where they ain’t. Where you belong in the political divide doesn’t affect the type of health care you get. At least it should not. But maybe, deep down, people think it does. So they reveal who they are. Which side they belong to. What they stand for. Or aren’t/don’t. Most come from a place of benign fear. Others come from a place of [toxic] anger. “Your care be damned,” they seem to say, “This is my country. I do not like the fact that you are in it. Can’t very well help that. So you are going to take what I have to give you”.
The liberals, mostly from Seattle or from snazzy places where they can afford to be tolerant despite the drastic changes happening around them [Redmond/Woodinville/Bellingham], would start with how much they hate Donald Trump/Republicans/the latest supreme court nominee. Or answer “every time the jackass in the White House opens his mouth”, when I ask if they were experiencing any pain. In an attempt to win my approval and goodwill, they try to show me they were what my boyfriend calls “one of the good ones”. How Obama was the best president America ever had, by far. That they do believe Christine Blasey Ford: “the woman has nothing to gain by telling the truth”. It is sunny because global warming is fucking the planet in the ass. Have I read this and that book by this or that author? If not, I should. It shows how segregated my beloved Seattle used to be until very recently. [So I should not be in a hurry to fawn over it].
But more often than not, and because most of our patients are on the older and whiter side [Urology is not a young man’s game – except when it comes to Erectile Dysfunction. Young East Indian men take the lion’s share when it comes to not being able to get it up], the patient would try to prove he does not care to be one of the “good ones”. By saying, for example, how he almost cancelled his appointment due to “the stupidity” at downtown [the protest]. How “Instead of investigating a millionaire who became a politician, they should investigate a politician who became a millionaire”. Or complain how the city has become barely recognizable, thanks to Amazon and these “techies”; how I should consider myself lucky that I wasn’t in Europe – there they have all these parts where black people aren’t even allowed into and/or ghettos where no one is safe at. Etc. etc.
There are, of course, the in-betweeners. The gentle folk, mostly women [almost always women] who eagerly look into my eyes before telling me of the boy their daughter-in-law adopted from Ethiopia, of the caretaker who shares my name [who always turns out to be Eritrean, for some reason]. How much they love injera, how they think Ethiopian women were the most beautiful black women in the world, and our work ethic. How grateful they are for the girls, most of them from Africa, who take care of their parent at the “Retirement Home”. How all the boys were mad over their high school best friend “Selam”, who goes by “Sally”, and was such a flirt.
When I enter the room a second time, or a third, to execute the doctor’s orders [to re-measure blood pressure, scan bladder/draw blood/call radiology and make imaging appointments/explain how this test or that procedure is performed/fill out their social.family.health.surgical history/assist in creating messaging portals], they would add bits and pieces of their own story. How the chubby middle-aged white woman used to be teased for “being shaped like a black girl” or having “nigger lips” in high school. How their ‘colored’ neighbors see them as enemies although they do their best to live in peace with their neighbours. How his fellow renters, most of them Hispanic, have grabbed all his things before he could make his way down that morning his girlfriend threw his cloth out their apartment window. And sometimes offend my sensibilities, without really meaning to, by telling me the story of how, when he was a child, his globe-trotting parents hired a black woman to be his “wet nurse”. Which is why he sees himself as “black” [despite his skin-color, the whiteness of his silken shirt, and superiority complex].
Rarely have I been called names, or made to feel bad about who I am, by my patients. One or two really old, really white, women have screeched like a bat and wept when I walked into the room or lifted their arm to check their pulse. [To the intense shame and apology of their kids: “She really doesn’t know what is going on”]. Some men have screamed and yelled at me for talking too fast “in an accent they can’t understand”. One patient has been so antagonistic at being vitaled by me, that I have to take myself out of the room and ask my white co-worker to go in and do his blood pressure instead. Which offended her, liberal activist that she is, and made my doctor [a white woman from Eastern-Europe with a stronger accent than mine that she has to leave notes on the white board as to what our “discharge”-duties ought to be, for not understanding instructions leads to error in charts] refused to go back into his room. Of course, he apologized “for being an asshole earlier” when he came out of the room, happy with his RX refill [his tadalafil, his Viagra, his tamsulosin – so he can fuck and pee, respectively]. Said traffic was beastly. That the lab had a long line when he went to it. That someone screwed with his appointment with the other doctor and he barely made it to this one. Etc. Etc.
It is fun. It is a ride. It is eye-opening as well as humbling. More than once I have “cast” a patient from East Washington into a mold called “A Hick”, an old white guy in a jumper, sporting muttonchops and scruffy [farmer-like] fingers, before he surprised me with “I wish somebody would drag that asshole in the White House to prison”. Or told me he wants me to know that I was his equal in every way. That he is happy I am in this country. That he is grateful for the care I take of him and fellow “old farts”. And the more the merrier!
Of course, sometimes it can be not fun. Not a joyful ride. Disheartening, too, as in the case of the well-dressed old man who was reading a book in the waiting room, [grabbing my book-lovin’ attention], who told me he knew Haileselassie, has visited Kenya, and that his kids are “crazy leftist”. He stayed behind after discharge so he can be more informed about my country/my experience/my interest. Asked what I thought of Bernie and socialism, tripped me into saying AOC was a little extreme, that the “Green Deal” was too ideal, before he declared how he hopes Joe Biden wins the Democratic nomination in 2020 because Trump would “sweep the floor with him”.
There also was the little Asian lady whom I was sure would be on my side, who likes me and always tells me how she looks forward to her 3-monthly pessary appointment just so she could see us, who surprised me by calling the black lives matter protest around the country “a riot”, how robbing stores and burning businesses was not the answer to the inequality, and how standing for the rights of others at the time of pandemic and economic turmoil is akin to “throwing gas on fire”.
You see all kinds, like I said. It is a glance at [mostly] white America. A sneak-peak. It is illuminating.
But none so illuminating as to what happened last Wednesday.
A day before, a patient has told me a joke that, unlike many jokes many patients told me prior, made me laugh. “Two fish are swimming along,” he started, “One of them hits a brick wall. He says ‘Damn!’”.
“How funny,” I giggled, fully entertained, “Very clever”.
“Yes,” the old white man [from some place far] answered, “You know why that is funny? It is because it was neither racist, nor sexist, nor politically incorrect in anyway. That is the state the country is in right now. You can’t tell a joke without offending someone”
[Alright, Cracker, move along]
Which he did, after complaining [just as he has been doing every time any one of us went in to the room to talk to him]: that he has another appointment to keep, that he feels he may have come to the wrong appointment first, that he may have missed the other appointment entirely.
My reassuring him how the other appointment was about 45 minutes after the one he has with us, and a solid two hours prior to his third appointment of the day; and then printing his clinical visit schedule/highlighting in yellow and pink marker when what was/going as far as assigning number to what comes before what was the sole reason why anyone of us [me, the doctor, the nurse] got anything done.
Still he fidgeted, kept asking if the doctor knows what medications he needs sent to which pharmacy, if I have told her what he told me earlier about his surgical history/his Nocturia/what visit notes and results to fax to which East Washingtonian family doctor.
After I walked him to the elevator explaining how to go about his next appointment [“Just a floor up. Yes, they know you are coming. I have called and told them not to cancel your appointment even if you were late – because we are holding you up. No, you don’t have to come back to see us. We are done with you for the day. The only thing left is for you to have your CT Scan and blood draw done at the lab near where you live on such and such a day. Upon receiving the result – yes, I have asked them to fax it to me when completed. Then we will call you with the doctor’s recommendation. No, not today. Not the next time you come to Seattle. But at that other day. Remember? The 15th?].
About an hour later, I was told “my patient” was sitting in the waiting room saying he has yet to be seen by my Doctor. “I think it is the same guy who was here early”, the receptionist sighed, “I don’t know what is going on”
I walked out to find him [the joker from East Washington], sitting with the same dumb lost look on his face. “What happened?” I asked, showing a row of teeth.
“I am here to see Doctor [my doctor’s name]” he said, showing me the print-out he showed me at our first meeting. “But you did,” I reminded him, “Remember? A tall thin woman with a strong accent? You asked me if she was Russian? She told you to have this and that done?”. A blank look was drawn. “You remember me though, don’t you?”
“Yes, I remember you,” he said cheerfully.
“You remember the nurse who came and explained how to self-Cath?”
“Oh yes,” looking at the catheter bag next to him.
“See? You have seen us! I made the imaging appointment for you, right? Printed the date and wrote a note about having a blood draw done at the same time?”
“Oh yeah,” He smiled, looking at the note I was pointing at, “So I don’t have to see the doctor now?”
“Nope. You are done,” I declared, “You can go home now”
[And good luck to your fellow motorists]
He smiled happily, “Sorry” he said, “I have had a car accident a while back. So I only bring half my brain with me” or something to that effect.
I laughed with him, patted him on the shoulder, led him to the elevator and told him what floor to get off at. To his question of validating his parking ticket, I said to talk to the guys on the first floor. They don’t validate, I know. But why tell him that and make my day even harder when I could pass him off to someone else? [Can’t very well spell ‘team work’ without spreading the pain around now, can you?]
After the elevator mercifully took him down, I walked to the girl [a Belgian Registered Nurse who is moonlighting as a medical receptionist until she found her footing around America and the American health system; a girl who, as a learned European, often shares a joke with me as to Americans’ stupidity] and told her the joke he told me. “He knew how to be political and sarcastic,” I complained bitterly, “despite not knowing what day of the month it is”
Then explained, for she was new to the country, does not listen to NPR, and does not deal with patients in the length that I do, how you can pin-point the political divide by which gerrymandered district the patient came from: West Washington good, I said, East Washington Bad. Simple as Liberal vs. Red Necks. White people who stand for two hours in a rainy park to protest white supremacy vs. those who carry tiki-torches and/or put Trump signs on their lawns. Those who wear masks and work from home vs. those who pretend their freedom of movement is being hampered by our demand that they socially-distance, were a mask, and monitor their symptoms. How the older and the Whittier they are, and the longer they drove to come to us, the more disagreeable they turn out to be.
Then, there were two. A man and his wife. Old white couple from Walla Walla or wherever it is that the asshole sheriff “fights the power”/”defies authority”/”stands for 1st amendment rights” by refusing to enforce stay-at-home orders [and/or say he wasn’t going to arrest a 20-year-old farmer who happens to have a semi-automatic rifle with him on his tractor, although his job, as a Sheriff, requires him to implement the voter-approved package of firearms restrictions] [and/or refuse to marry a gay couple based on ‘God’s authority’ even though that is what she is being paid for as a Country Clerk]
These were one of those pleasant couple where the man looks younger than the woman but was really older. Where she is both the mother/the wife/the caretaker: knows all the medication he is taking, which family member had what in their medical history, how to advocate for him like a by making herself heard above the childish noise/wise cracks/lame jokes he makes. And he makes up for it by calling her “his sweetie”/”the boss”/”my beloved” when you ask whom he has with him today and defers to her knowledge/wisdom/judgement every step of the way.
An loving couple who seem to always plan to dodge downtown’s rush-hour traffic by going out to dinner after the visit, and who tell me they do not regret driving for four hours/spending the night at a hotel near by/having gone through a regiment of cancer treatments: because we are the best. The nicest. The most professional. I should see the kind of doctors they have in Walla Walla. Ha!
These old, middle-class, retired couple one would say are the least likely candidates to teach me a lesson on why BLM matters would prove how, although some of the protesters were in it because their friends were doing it, and despite “CHAZ”/”CHOP” becoming “a sort of neighbourhood block party” [where young black men get shot at], Floyd’s death wasn’t in vain. That some victories have already been won. And that things won’t go back to normal any time soon.
How did it start?
When the woman asked, as I went back to scan her husband’s bladder [where he joked, after being married for 46 years, he has nothing to hide and dropped his pants]. The question didn’t come until the “small talk” was gotten out of the way: “Oh? Your father was an English Teacher? Oh? You came through your American husband? Oh? You met him online? Oh? You worry people won’t be able to see your smile because of the mask? Oh but you have such beautiful… smiling eyes. Anyone can see that!”
I was wiping the ultra-sound gel off him after he goodnaturedly refused my offer to assist him up, and rocked himself out of the exam bed, when his spouse asked how I found America. “Great,” I said, “The first two years are always hard. But then you get the hang of it. I mean… it is a beautiful country, no doubt about that, the best – especially when you are in this state”
“And have you,” she started concernedly, hesitantly, almost fearfully, “faced any discrimination because of the color of your skin?”
This is why that question is rare and unique. Not because it was the first time I was asked it: white men, aged 32-53, have asked me if I have been a victim of America’s race problem. If I have been called ‘the n’ word. If it was very easy to integrate what I brought from home [my black pride/my having never been colonized/my ancestors winning the war against a European invader], with how black people are treated here. Some have waxed bitter and poetical at times. Others have become cynic. Yet others, hopeful: that Donald Trump may get Covid19, that his diet may lead to a heart-attack and/or paralysis, that they believe Hilary Clinton has a fair chance of winning the next election now that the country has seen what a mess “Orangeman” made of his office.
But none have apologized with tears in their eyes the way that woman did when I mentioned how, yes, I have been called names once or twice [“by homeless people”].
“I am so sorry,” she said, looking heart broken that someone would up and try to hurt a nice girl like me for no good reason. Why my goodness was unable to separate/exclude/excuse me from the color of my skin. How anyone can’t see I was neither less than nor in anyway undeserving from any [white] kid of my age.
When I answered how I was not as hurt as she seems to think because I knew most of America to be solid decent, that I do not take those folks as a good representative of white people, that unhappy folks need someone to blame for their anger and the unsettling change they see around them/for the loss of their livelihood/for how their town was ravaged by the Opioid Crisis; her husband tried to lighten the mood by joking “You know, it is always the losers: Uh..I am unhappy so I am going to make you unhappy too”. Then he patted the shoulder of his wife, who looked as if she wanted to give me a hug or shake my hand, before apologizing a second time for the sting I received to my pride/the feeling of loneliness I must have experienced that time a mentally ill fellow-pedestrian called me ‘nigger’, for the racist cat-calls I get from ‘tent-city’ dwellers when they aren’t begging me to give them a buck for cigarette/saying ‘God bless you’ and..or ‘Have a nice day’ despite not seeing a penny from me/or aren’t making a ‘V’ sign with their finger – a wagging tongue stuck in the middle – to show their desire to perform cunnilingus on me.
[I used to walk for hours after work back when I was having suicidal thoughts and anxiety attacks at being all alone in a foreign land]
What touched me deep about the woman isn’t the tearful look or the need to break physical distancing rules for my sake or even the indignity at the ill-treatment I received in the hands of people who do not know me. Most people, even Donald Trump’s supporters, would agree it is not fair for a capable person to be mistreated based on the color of his/her skin. Neither are these couple the first to ask me if my skin color has stood in the way of my advancement in America. They weren’t even the only white couple, from a conservative part of the country, raised “in the church of ‘be nice to others and don’t talk with your mouth full'” to say I deserve better than what I got. What makes this episode different is the fact that these couple, this woman, this old white American, did not make my race problem hers. She didn’t try to show me which side she was on. That she was “one of the good ones”. That I have nothing to fear from she and her husband. No. She genuinely wanted to know what my experience as a black person was. To see my world through my eyes.
And that, my friends, is why “Black Lives Matter” matters. Despite burning restaurants, lootings, and CHAZ/CHOP; something has been won here. One woman, at least, has realized understanding racism in America is a process: something to be learned from those who go through it day to day. That America, as seen by her, is different from what America is as seen by a person of color. That this wasn’t about her: the person who belongs, the one with the default color, the one with European ancestors. But those who aren’t fortunate to be born her. That, without the humility of acknowledging your ignorance, without your willingness to face some unpleasant truths, to admit that this wasn’t [should not be] about you, you will never learn/grasp/empathize with the full weight of others’ experience of this beautiful/amazing/heart-breaking [”wuha Qida wuha melis”/”taTbo chiQa”] country called America.
And that, if nothing else, is where the victory, the discovery, the changing of minds occurs.
Or so I would like to believe.