I Was A Med Student At UVA, And I've Witnessed Intolerance In Rural Virginia

The pictures from Charlottesville showing places I’ve been filled with such hatred and violence are shocking. But I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised.

They sent me to the hometown of Jerry Falwell. I wonder if the choice to send me instead of a white male who grew up in rural Virginia was deliberate. I attended the University of Virginia Medical School in Charlottesville, and in light of this weekend’s events, I’m saddened but not terribly surprised. I’ve been reflecting on my experiences while at UVA and all of the ways I felt an undercurrent of intolerance.

In my third year of medical school, I was sent to a rural area of Virginia for a general practice rotation. The main restaurant in town was Sonic, and the mountains were just beautiful. The solo physician practice was busy, and everyone knew everyone, including all of their “business,” which made the detective work of some parts of medicine a bit simpler. You don’t need to ask what they ate, because you knew what was available at the grocery store. You don’t need to ask if they traveled anywhere, because you know they didn’t. If there was something going around at the school, you might as well just have the nurse hand out the prescriptions.

One evening, the doctor I was shadowing invited me to attend the County Medical Society meeting. There were about six doctors in the room, all male, all white. One of the topics that came up was the hiring of a new doctor to a neighboring county. The discussion was baffling because they seemed more concerned about the politics of that doctor than the qualifications. I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t realize I was a fish out of water. I kept my mouth shut that evening.

I asked the doctor the next day about the meeting, and he explained everything. They had a seven-county block of doctors who never referred any woman to an abortion clinic, and they wanted to keep it that way.

I pressed him on why he didn’t believe in abortion, and he told me a story of a woman who did have an abortion. Apparently she was taking some medications that were not good to take during pregnancy. He didn’t refer her, and he didn’t help her in any way. She managed to find a clinic somewhere else in the state. Afterward, she was so regretful of having “killed her baby” that she was never quite right.

Thinking back, he really was just touting the party line of being a “compassionate” doctor who didn’t believe in abortion because it’s so “horrible” for the woman. If the community didn’t ostracize her, if her church didn’t make her feel guilty, if she was supported in her mental illness rather than further shamed, I think she may have led a more normal life. In other words, she wasn’t “right” because no one allowed her to be right.

The thing that struck me the most was the deviousness of how these doctors in the seven-county area managed to keep out any doctors who would talk to their patients about abortion. They made sure that everyone would only hear negative stories about abortion, furthering the local church’s agenda. They made a pact with each other and were successful in continuing to brainwash their communities. For years, those doctors forced the families they cared for to adhere to the doctors’ narrow interpretation of Christianity.

In some ways, I am glad I was the student sent to shadow this doctor. It gave me some insight into a world I otherwise would have never known. It made me understand that I need to be ever-cognizant of the politics and religion of my co-workers. And because UVA sent me, and not a more impressionable person, the methods of this horrible moral monopoly were not passed on to someone else who may implement it elsewhere.

The pictures from Charlottesville showing places I’ve been filled with such hatred and violence are shocking. But having experienced the extreme intolerance that exists in Virginia, I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised.