The XX Factor

When You’re a Doctor of Color, Many People Won’t Think You’re a Doctor

#WhatADoctorLooksLike.

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In a viral Facebook post, Dr. Tamika Cross, a Houston-based OB-GYN resident, describes a strange and horrific in-flight scene wherein she was physically blocked from providing medical care to a fellow passenger in need. She says she attempted to respond to a flight attendant’s call for help when a nearby passenger suddenly became unresponsive in his seat, but was told to sit down because they were looking for “actual physicians or nurses.” The full text is below:

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I’m sure many of my fellow young, corporate America working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected.

Was on Delta flight DL945 and someone 2 rows in front of me was screaming for help. Her husband was unresponsive. I naturally jumped into Doctor mode as no one else was getting up. Unbuckle my seatbelt and throw my tray table up and as I’m about to stand up, flight attendant says “everyone stay calm, it’s just a night terror, he is alright”. I continue to watch the scene closely.

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A couple mins later he is unresponsive again and the flight attendant yells “call overhead for a physician on board”. I raised my hand to grab her attention. She said to me “oh no sweetie put ur hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you” I tried to inform her that I was a physician but I was continually cut off by condescending remarks.

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Then overhead they paged “any physician on board please press your button”. I stare at her as I go to press my button. She said “oh wow you’re an actual physician?” I reply yes. She said “let me see your credentials. What type of Doctor are you? Where do you work? Why were you in Detroit?” (Please remember this man is still in need of help and she is blocking my row from even standing up while bombarding me with questions.)

I respond “OBGYN, work in Houston, in Detroit for a wedding, but believe it or not they DO HAVE doctors in Detroit. Now excuse me so I can help the man in need”. Another “seasoned” white male approaches the row and says he is a physician as well. She says to me “thanks for your help but he can help us, and he has his credentials”. (Mind you he hasn’t shown anything to her. Just showed up and fit the “description of a doctor”) I stay seated. Mind blown. Blood boiling. (Man is responding the his questions and is seemingly better now Thank God)

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Then this heifer has the nerve to ask for my input on what to do next about 10 mins later. I tell her we need vitals and blood sugar. She comes back to report to me a BP of 80/50 (super low, to my non medical peeps) and they can’t find a glucometer. We continue down that pathway of medical work up, but the point is she needed my help and I continued to help despite the choice words I had saved up for her. The patient and his wife weren’t the problem, they needed help and we were mid flight.

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She came and apologized to me several times and offering me skymiles. I kindly refused. This is going higher than her. I don’t want skymiles in exchange for blatant discrimination. Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it’s not right. She will not get away with this….and I will still get my skymiles….

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Cross herself did not respond to Slate’s request for comment. Catherine Sirna, a spokesperson for Delta Airlines, stated, “Discrimination of any kind is never acceptable. We’ve been in contact with Dr. Cross and one of our senior leaders is reaching out to assure her that we’re completing a full investigation.”

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Amidst this investigation, Cross’ post has ignited widespread social media attention, including the Twitter hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike and a deluge of similar stories from other physicians of color.

“This scenario has happened to me several times,” Dr. Willie Parker, a prominent reproductive rights advocate and black OB-GYN physician, wrote to me. “The sad thing is I never see a look of contemplation on the face of these people when they write me off because I don’t look like what a doctor is supposed to look like.”

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“I’ve also experienced something like this on a plane,” Texas-based OB-GYN Dr. Bhavik Kumar told me. “That someone would discriminate against who can and cannot provide emergency medical care based on the color of their skin is absurd.”

As a female Latina physician myself, the kind of behavior that Cross and others describe is all too familiar. I’ve been called “nurse” more times than I care to remember, but that’s nothing compared to a former black co-resident of mine, who—despite wearing her white coat at all times—had patients frequently ask her to collect their food trays or trash.

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While only one-third of all U.S. physicians are female, among incoming medical students it’s nearly 50 percent. But the same parity does not seem to be on the horizon for racial diversity: According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, blacks and African Americans make up only 4 percent of the physician workforce. Maybe it’s this deplorable statistic that leads to life-endangering medical interference on planes—or maybe it’s just plain old racism. As BlackDoctor.org writer Dr. Meena Singh puts it, “The white coat and doctor credentials aren’t enough for some people to ‘recognize’ a Black doctor.”

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