“So, I know this is going to sound racist, but how did he get Hep C?” my white coworker asked about my white patient.
“You’re right. That is racist. Have you ever asked how a black patient got Hep C?”
“No, but usually it’s…obvious,” she responded, obviously uncomfortable.
“Is it? Because I didn’t see anything in the history of the black patient with Hep C down the hall to explain how he got it.”
“Well, it usually seems like IV drug use. But I don’t think that’s the case with this guy. And his family is so nice.”
“Wow. Are you serious?” I cut the conversation and watched her walk out of the room.
As a brown, cis-gender nurse, I have found myself in the position of hearing racist, sexist, classist, and transphobic commentary espoused by both doctors and nurses. We live in a society that values certain lives over others, on a systemic, institutionalized basis. When working in a hospital setting, this still stands.
As healthcare providers, we are responsible for people’s lives. The way we perceive our patients directly translates to how we treat them and to the quality of care they receive. When a nurse calls a black patient “drug-seeking”, this can delay adequate pain management and diagnostic testing. When a nurse perceives a woman as emotional, early symptoms of a heart attack are ignored. When a nurse perceives a trans* patient as unworthy and refuses to use their preferred gender pronoun, the nurse may not hear the whole story when it comes to symptoms, and the quality of care the person receives suffers.
But we can do better.
I challenge you, as I challenge myself every day, to value the lives of your patients of color and trans patients as much as I do my white, cis-gender patients. I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to believe your patients’ story. I challenge you, and myself, to respond to my black patients call bells as quickly as I do for my white patients. I challenge you, and myself, to communicate as kindly and effectively with my patients of color as I do with my white patients, whether this means speaking through a translator, explaining what’s going on to ten family members, or spending extra time with patients who are rightfully suspicious of all healthcare providers.
We need to actively examine how we interact with our patients and how that might be affected by race, class, gender, and systemic divisions. We have been poisoned by our culture; it will take time to heal but we, as healers, need to do the work required for us to be better providers.