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‘Racism is a public health issue’: Medical workers unite to support Black Lives Matter

Physicians, residents, medical students show solidarity with demonstrations while continuing to battle pandemic

By
Metro Editor
Monday, June 15, 2020

In the shadow of Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Chief Pediatrics Resident Alexis Thompson bowed her head in silence. She was motionless, surrounded by dozens of colleagues, clad in their white jackets, blue-green uniforms and face masks.

Together, they knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds the same amount of time 46-year-old George Floyd was pinned down by the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on his neck before his death last month. 

In this moment, Thompson, who is Black, thought of all the other Black lives taken without accountability. She thought of her colleagues and mentors. She thought of her graduation ceremony, due to take place a few hours later on June 5, and of celebrating the completion of her three-year pediatric residency program — an aspiration since childhood. And she thought what it would be like to have the feeling of someone’s weight on you as you gasp for air. 

“We are still fighting for basic human rights,” she recalls thinking.

COURTESY OF: Patricia Poitevien

Healthcare workers knelt for almost nine minutes outside of Hasbro Children’s Hospital June 5

That Friday afternoon, medical workers were taking part in similar acts of solidarity across the country, as part of White Coats for Black Lives. Nurses, students, residents, doctors and other hospital staff from Philadelphia to San Francisco protested against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s killing. 

For Patricia Poitevien ’94 MD’98, like Thompson, participation in the demonstration was both deeply personal and professionally profound. 

“I am a physician. I am a person of color. I am a mother of two boys who are Black,” said Poitevien, who is the residency program director for the department of pediatrics and an assistant professor in the division of pediatric hospitalist medicine at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. She is also assistant dean for the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Warren Alpert Medical School.

“The events that are currently occurring in our nation,” she added, “impact me across the landscape of the roles that I play in my life.”

For Poitevien and other healthcare workers, these protests are all the more poignant at a time when they have strained to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19 for months a pandemic which is disproportionately affecting patients of color. 

To see so many coworkers from all different racial identities kneeling together in condemnation of systemic racism was moving, Poitevien added.

“It showed me that my colleagues understand how this impacts me as one of their colleagues,” she said, “but also the patients that we all care for.” 

Black people comprise 13 percent of the nation’s population, but 24 percent of deaths from COVID-19 where race is known. 

In Rhode Island, Hispanic or Latinx residents comprise 44 percent of positive COVID-19 coronavirus test cases in the state and non-Hispanic Black or African American residents comprise 13 percent, according to data released by the state’s Department of Health. These residents are also disproportionately represented in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, though they make up only 15 percent and 6 percent of the population of Rhode Island respectively.

This reality is part of what prompted Erin Baroni, a third-year internal medicine/pediatrics resident, to march in her white coat with some of her colleagues from Rhode Island Hospital to the State House Friday afternoon. There, they took part in what became the largest protest in recent state history, drawing about 10,000 people.

Though Baroni expressed concerns that large gatherings could cause a second wave of COVID-19 cases, she said that the protests and police brutality, like the coronavirus pandemic, are a reminder of the disproportionate health risks that Black Americans face.

She participated “to show solidarity, not only for our Black colleagues but our patients and community,” Baroni, who is white, said. “Racism is a public health issue.”

Baroni, who has been involved in LGBTQ+ and sexual-gender minority advocacy work for almost a decade, also wanted to highlight the disproportionate effects of violence on Black transgender women. 

Giovanna Deluca, a first-year emergency medical resident at Rhode Island Hospital, voiced similar worries about balancing her involvement in protests and adhering to public health guidelines. 

“We are worried about resurgence,” she said, but felt determined to stand with her colleagues and community members demanding justice by attending the protest. 

At a time when people are especially reliant on the expertise of the medical community, Deluca added that the role of healthcare workers in ongoing demonstrations is particularly important.

“We have strong voices by being in the medical field. I think it’s really important to use them,” Deluca, a New York-native who is of both Italian and Japanese descent, said. 

“We fought so hard for PPE because we were scared for ourselves,” she added. “We should be fighting for this, too.”

Deluca also partnered with colleagues, including Baroni, to build a photo collage of solidarity. This, she hoped, would be another way of demonstrating a commitment to justice — especially for her colleagues who might not have been able to attend the June 5 protest. 

“We have a really diverse patient population here in Providence,” she added. “We were trying to find a way to show our community that we stand with them.”

Originally, Deluca only asked her co-residents to participate, but word swiftly spread around the hospital and staff from a range of departments  — from pediatrics to surgery, internal medicine to family medicine — emailed photos to be included in the collage. 

Within 48 hours, she had received over 200 pictures — some from colleagues she had never met before.

The rush of involvement demonstrated “ how strongly the voice of the medical community and of the hospital points towards justice,” Deluca added. 

And, for many, the unity and sense of community demonstrated at protests has been a comfort after months of seeing patients struggling in isolation, as many hospitals have banned or strictly limited visitors during the pandemic. “To have so many people together feeling strongly about justice,” Baroni added, “was incredibly uplifting.”

The vigil ended with some in tears and Thompson headed home to prepare for her graduation ceremony. Others walked back into the hospital building to face another battle waiting for them inside.

Poitevien hopes that this isn’t just a moment in our history but a real turning point,” she said.

For Thompson, the day, one of tremendous pain, also brought celebration. A few hours after the vigil, her residency class held their graduation ceremony — online, because of the persisting COVID-19 crisis. 

That Friday, she added, felt like “a story of what it’s like to be Black in America.” 

She paused, before continuing: “To know that bad things, terrible things, are happening but still finding the strength to realize the good in life.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article specified the date of the protest and graduation as June 12, last Friday, when it was in fact June 5, a week ago Friday. The Herald regrets the error.

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