A black Harvard-educated doctor says she was racially profiled by employees on a Delta connection flight who questioned her medical credentials as she tried to help a fellow passenger in distress.
Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, who serves as an obesity medicine physician-scientist, educator and policymaker at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told Boston 25 News that she was flying from Indianapolis to Boston on Oct. 23 when a woman began to convulse and hyperventilate.
Stanford said she worked to calm the woman as she assessed her condition. A flight attendant approached and asked Stanford if she was a doctor. Stanford, in turn, produced her medical license.
“She looked at it, walked down to the back of the plane. Then the second flight attendant approached me and asked, ‘Well, can I see your license again?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Stanford recalled to Boston 25 News.
Stanford continued trying to calm the woman, who later told the doctor that she was having a panic attack, The Boston Globe reported.
Amid this, Stanford said the first flight attendant returned and questioned her ability to help. “You’re not really a doctor,” the attendant allegedly said. “You’re just a head doctor.”
“I said, ‘Excuse me, what do you mean by that?’ [She replied,] ‘Oh, so you’re not really an MD, are you?’” Stanford told Boston 25 News.
Speaking to The Boston Globe, Stanford said she believes the attendants’ suspicions of her credentials were “100 percent” racially biased.
Stanford told HuffPost in an email that the flight attendants, who were wearing Delta uniforms, asked if the medical license she was showing them was actually hers.
A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, reached by HuffPost on Thursday, apologized and said Delta does not require a passenger to produce medical credentials to help another passenger in a time of need. However, spokesman Anthony Black pointed out that the plane in question was being operated by another carrier, Republic Airline. It works in partnership with Delta, he said, but it has its own operating and training procedures.
Republic spokesman Jon Austin told HuffPost that the airline will make improvements so that its employees are better versed on the policies regarding medical identification.
“We’re grateful to Dr. Stanford for her medical assistance onboard our flight 5935 and are sorry for any misunderstanding that may have occurred during her exchange with our in-flight crew,” Austin said in a statement. “Moving forward, we are working with Delta to ensure our employees understand and consistently apply all applicable policies. Dr. Stanford’s care for the passenger remained uninterrupted throughout the duration of the medical issue.”
Delta echoed that gratitude to Stanford in a statement to HuffPost, adding: “We are following up with our connection carrier partner to ensure their employees understand and consistently apply the policy.”
Delta changed its policy on medical credentials in 2016 after another black female doctor, Tamika Cross, accused Delta employees of ignoring her offers to help a sick passenger in favor of a white male doctor who was also on the plane. In that case, the female doctor did not have her medical credentials on her, whereas the male doctor did, the airline said.
Stanford, reflecting on her experience, called the incident “unacceptable.”
“I would like to make sure [too] that the diversity training at Delta and other airlines is intensified,” she told HuffPost.
In an ironic twist, Stanford told Boston 25 News that she had recently attended a panel on medical bias and spoken with Cross about her experience, which had inspired Stanford to carry her medical license with her at all times.
Stanford shared her story on Twitter, prompting other doctors to offer their own experiences. She noted that she’s been in touch with Delta’s staff but said that their conversation left her “quite uncertain that any changes will be made.”
According to Stanford’s tweet, the flight attendants thought she was only a therapist, even after seeing her medical license.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Stanford.