Don’t Suspend Doctors for Fighting White Supremacy
Editor’s Note: Dr. Eugene Gu is a resident physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and president of the Ganogen Research Institute. He graduated from Stanford University with honors and holds an M.D. from the Duke University School of Medicine. The views expressed in this piece are solely his own.
I came to Nashville, Tennessee in July 2015 eager to start my surgical residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). During my first night on call, I saw a child in the emergency room who was complaining about abdominal pain. After performing a physical exam and collecting a few labs, I ordered a CT scan that cinched the diagnosis and took him to the operating room to have his appendix removed.
As I held the laparoscopic instruments in my hand, it felt like the culmination of all my years of training — all those late nights studying anatomy and biochemistry at Stanford University, all the tough rotations at Duke Medical School, and all my microsurgery practice as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellow. It was both exhilarating and humbling — my first experience as the surgeon under the bright lights of responsibility in the operating room. There was nowhere else I wanted to be but with that child in that room helping to save his life.
A few months later I was racially and physically assaulted in the hospital’s parking garage. Nothing made me feel more horrified and humiliated than hearing my attacker say, “Hey chink, you can’t fucking drive.” My assailant then choked me using my own medical identification lanyard hanging around my neck. After I broke free, he stalked me to the main hospital entrance and up nine flights of stairs, where he stole my patient lists. As an Asian American physician in the Deep South, this scenario had been a nightmare in the back of my mind. But now it was real, and it turned my whole world upside-down.
The trauma of that incident still haunts me. As the months passed, I decided that I wanted to take back what was so savagely torn from me — my personal dignity. So when I saw NFL players like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett taking a knee on the football field to fight racial injustice, I knew what I had to do.
Dressed in the same white coat and scrubs as I was the day I was attacked, I took a knee in the same hallway where my assailant once stole my patient lists. As an Asian American doctor, I was confronting White supremacy — not just for myself, but for all victims of racial violence. I posted a photo of this on Twitter, which unexpectedly went viral.
Soon, I found myself in the crosshairs of prominent conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Michelle Malkin. A story in The Daily Wire questioned whether an Asian American doctor was too privileged to understand racism. VUMC’s social media director started sending me intimidating emails about my need to adhere to its social media policy and I received a warning letter from my program director.
Unbeknownst to me, since my notifications were flooded from my tweet against White supremacy,the mother of a hospital patient started cyberbullying me on Facebook as a result of the uproar. She posted a screenshot of my tweet, claimed that I was pushing my political agenda at work, and invited all her friends to make disparaging remarks about me. I hadn’t met her at that point. When I did meet her weeks later after being assigned to care for her son, she rudely told me to leave the room in front of my whole team. Flustered and confused, I backed away.
If the saga had ended there, it would have been just another unpleasant interaction I could have easily shrugged off. But soon I was placed on administrative leave for what the official letter stated as “complaints that VUMC has received from patients and external sources.”VUMC revoked my access to medical records. I was escorted off campus like a criminal.
That’s when one of the patient advocates within the hospital forwarded me an email chainbetween my chairman of surgery and other patient advocates about the need to investigate and document every concern the mother had about me. It looked like their primary goal was not to uncover the truth but to destroy me. I soon found public Facebook posts in which the mother proudly stated that she was talking with administration officials at VUMC about having me fired or placed on leave and revoking my access to her son’s medical records. They have followed her advice to the letter.
Unfortunately, my experience is in no way unique. A 2009 study in the Journal of the National Medical Association found that almost a quarter of physicians of Asian ethnicity left at least one job because of workplace discrimination, compared with just 9% of White physicians.Right after the Charlottesville clashes last year, emergency room doctor Esther Choo detailed her own experiences attempting to treat White nationalists. She was often kicked out of the room when trying to save their lives. While leaving her heartbroken and confused, her story sparked a national conversation about bias and racism in the hospital setting.
We need to continue that conversation. Moving forward, we must find ways to address the pernicious issue of workplace violence and discrimination against physicians of color. This requires a careful and sometimes unpleasant examination. Just as surgery to remove a cancerous tumor comes with pain, so too does a hospital’s quest to understand the racism within its walls.
Unfortunately, VUMC’s attempt to silence these conversations promotes a culture in which people are too intimidated to speak out against important issues like racism. A major academic center should be taking more proactive steps to make minorities feel not just included, but empowered. VUMC and the entire health care community can and must do better for our patients, our colleagues, and ourselves.