I still remember the hospital room. It was clean like a barracks room ready to be inspected by a marines drill sergeant at any moment’s notice. You could feel the dread that consumed the air. I remember our last talk. He anxiously inhaled a drag of his black & mild, the first since he had quit smoking 15 years ago, hoping the vanilla flavored nicotine would somehow numb the pain of bad news. I knew he was dying, a time frame was salt in the wound. He tucked his fear behind his picket fence smile, and said, “Don’t worry nephew, I’m goin be alright.”
He always use to say, “you know you my favorite nephew right? Because you smart and got a Big ol’ Head” while playfully pushing me. But he would never live to see me graduate medical school. 4 months later I would lose my best friend. But he did not die of natural causes or a freak accident. He died of Iatrophobia, the “fear of the Healer”.
In the 1790s Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the forefathers of modern-day medicine, introduced racial difference into the curriculum of US medical schools. He taught that blackness was a form of leprosy. Equating whiteness to health and dark skin to disease. In the 1830s the heads of black boys where cracked open, there bones detached from their skulls, used as puzzle pieces and rearranged for practice. Enslaved black girls where used as lab rats, tied to barber chairs, pinned down, stretched wide, and tortured without anesthesia.
Slaves who fled bondage where diagnosed a mental health disorder. It was called “Drapetomani,” the run-a-way slave syndrome. The treatment plan was amputation of limbs. In the 1930s over 400 black men with syphilis, were lied to and treated with placebo for over 40 years, they suffered and died horrific deaths. In the 1960’s black women would go to the hospital for a routine visit and leave with a hysterectomy. In the 1990s the FDA approved a contraceptive pill targeting black teenage girls in Baltimore. It was endorsed by David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.
So when my uncle told me that he didn’t trust doctors, I understood why. When he died or a curable disease 20 years before his expiration date, I understood why. For so many it feels like they switched out white sheets for white coats. Some see a stethoscope, others see a noose! The hope of healing, strangled by the hold of history. And most days, I can feel the anger buried deep down inside, climbing out tooth and nail.
Obsessed with helping those who look like me. No sacrifice to big, no life to small. I wear this white coat with pride! As if it were part of my very bone structure. My stethoscope; an extension of my arm. Because when your a black doctor, you become more than just a hero. You become a symbol of hope. That maybe… just maybe… Not all doctors are evil. Because after all, my son, daughter, brother, sister or “Big Headed nephew” is a doctor! And maybe that iota of hope would have been enough.
Washington, Harriet A. 2006. Medical apartheid: the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. New York: Doubleday.
Dr. TJ Shaw is a medical doctor and national ranked poet. His poetry examines historical and current issues in healthcare. He has competed against some of the greatest slam poets hailing from major cities across North America including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Vancouver, as well as countries around the world such as Australia, France and Germany. Dr. TJ is the 2019 Orlando Poetry Grand Slam Champion, a 2019 Final Stage poet at the World Poetry Slam, and currently the 8th ranked slam poet in the world! Whether challenging dominant narratives related to health and race, bringing awareness to health inequalities, scrutinizing the stigma of mental health, or just sharing various personal experiences; Dr. TJ strives to use his unique platform to cultivate a deeper, more critical engagement with healthcare issues, one based in both empathy and urgency.