The first time I saw the media portray doctors who were women of color was on “Grey’s Anatomy.” I’ve been watching the show since it started, but a recent episode hit differently. It made me realize how this pandemic has affected me and all my colleagues who identify as underrepresented in medicine.
It is the end of a long day, and Maggie Pierce, a Black surgeon who has been redeployed to the COVID-19 intensive care unit, escapes into a supply room for a quiet moment. She dreads answering a call from her partner. He simply asks what is wrong; she slips to the floor and cries. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this ... 53 people. That’s how many people have died on my watch. ... Rosalie deserved a better death than this, she deserved not to be a statistic.”
That moment resonated. We have heard countless health care workers on the front lines describe the toll this pandemic is taking on them. They report feeling exhausted and bearing the weight of being the last human connection a patient may have.
But that scene revealed something more: the experience of Black and Latinx health care workers and physicians during this pandemic. We are only about 10.8% of the physician workforce, according to a 2018 survey, but our communities make up a far greater percentage of those in the COVID wards and morgues.
As a first-generation Latina and physician who cares for COVID-19 patients sick enough to need hospitalization, watching its impact on communities of color — a community I am a part of — is hard to endure. I understand the racism these communities have faced historically, because my family and friends have faced the same. My knowledge that these communities are disproportionately affected by diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease is not just clinical; I have experienced this reality in my own life.
I have never taken care of more Spanish speakers, undocumented patients, Latinx patients or Black patients than I have during the pandemic. At first, there was an adrenaline rush to buoy me when Spanish speakers crowded hospitals in the spring. But even as the numbers dipped, communities of color continued to be disproportionately impacted. Now, as the numbers surge again, we are still getting seriously ill and dying at higher rates.
“More often than we’d like, we watch a patient who could have been our mother, our father, our family member turn into a statistic.”
It’s not just me or the fictional Dr. Pierce. My colleagues of color tell me that they recognize that additional layer of heaviness that “Grey’s Anatomy” depicted. We see our mothers, fathers, siblings in the patients we care for. We talk daily with family members, updating them on their loved one’s progress. Sometimes the conversation is the same for days or weeks. “We’re doing everything we can; they’re on all of the treatments we have available. We just have to support them the best we can while their body fights this virus.”
And more often than we’d like, there is a phone call to say that we have had to transfer their loved one to the ICU, or that they’ve passed away. We watch a patient who could have been our mother, our father, our family member turn into a statistic.
Of course, we care for and do our best for every patient we see; we took an oath to do so. Still, I have come to realize that the connection that comes from shared experiences, culture and language is not just a special burden for health care providers of color, but a special strength as well.
Health care messaging around COVID-19 has at times been inconsistent, unclear and culturally inappropriate. For example, initially people were told to stay home. But many Black and Latinx individuals couldn’t because they were essential workers. They did not have guidance on how to protect themselves if they did have to work. Other times, messages were not in their language or did not take into account social situations that are important factors in a pandemic, such as families in multigenerational homes.
Health care workers who come from these disproportionately impacted communities have insights that can help guide hospitals and health care agencies when they reach out, but too often we are not at the table when messaging decisions are being made. This may be because we are fighting on the front lines.
Now is when we need our colleagues to reach out to us. Actively listen to our concerns or suggestions regarding outreach to these communities. Make use of our shared experience, culture and language to help make health care information more accessible. Let us feel heard and supported. Help us not feel we must bear this heavy weight alone.
Dr. Susan Lopez works with patients admitted to the hospital at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and has been treating COVID-19 patients since the spring. She is a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.