To My Colleagues: A Call to Individual Change in a Surgery Residency Program

30 Jun 2020

By Danielle Walsh

Written June 1, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

Unprecedented times.  It’s been said so often that the phrase starts to ring hollow, but there aren’t better words.  Across our nation and in our own backyard, we have a problem.  Centuries of discrimination created by the systematic bias ingrained into our society has led our brothers and sisters of color to stand up and make it clear that enough is enough.  It is not OK for Ahmaud Arbery to be shot when walking or running in Georgia.  It is impossible to understand how another human being thought it was OK to crush the life out of George Floyd laying on the ground in handcuffs.  It is unacceptable for a woman in NY, breaking the law herself, to wield power over Christian Cooper by both gross exaggeration of the circumstances and full knowledge that calling the police would likely settle the matter in her favor.  It is not OK.  


As a woman entering surgery more than 20 years ago, discrimination was just making the turn from overt to covert.  Almost all progress in this past 20 years came about by 2 changes: 1 – Men stepping up to publicly call out discrimination with active advocation for women to have a voice in our profession and 2 – My brothers and sisters in healthcare at all levels calling out injustice against women right on the spot.  With these efforts, women have found their footing and blossomed such that our numbers are rising rapidly to on par with our male colleagues.  The need to do the same for our brother and sisters of color in our personal and professional lives is critical.  Without the courage of people in power (and all doctors are people of power) making changes in society, we can not move ahead.  That is the message of this movement.  It is incumbent on all of us to hear it and take action. 

Watching the news earlier this month, my first response was likely the same as many of you.  Surely, I am not the one discriminating…  But as I continued watching people angry to the point of destruction, my thoughts shifted to one of judging them for their actions.  And then it hit me.  I’m guilty.  In judging others, without having taken enough action in the past to root out the causes of such anger in our community, without having lead others to do the same, I am complicit in discrimination.  By using my own lens of justice to say I have no sympathy for your cause because you damaged a structure is to fail to see the bigger picture of the destruction of the human spirit in a large segment of our society.  It is to fail your fellow man by closing your eyes to their pain and hurt with an arrogance of being better.

This is not to say I understand the pain and anger of living as a Black person or person of color.  I don’t.  I can’t.  I can only know that I have failed to hold myself accountable to calling it out around me and failed to help fix an ugly part of society because of any number of excuses. And I have failed to hold my colleagues accountable as well.  If we can successfully slow a pandemic to a crawl, surely we can do the same for discrimination in society.  We just need the same level of concern for life, allocation of resources, and commitment to safety.  Let it start with each of us now.

So where can we go from here?  Each day, I ask each of you to use all the skills that all doctors were trained to use for the society around you.  

  • Listen to the anger and upset and stories both on the news and in our workplace.  Do so without judgment.  Hear and try to understand just a little bit better than you did yesterday.
  • Look at the people working around you.  Don’t just walk past anyone, whether they have a stethoscope or a broom, who is contributing to the care of YOUR patients without acknowledging them as a VALUED member of the team.
  • Ask your co-workers of color if they are getting the support they need from you.  In fact, if you don’t know their names, ask who they are, and thank them for what they do.  Many are hurting and could be helped by someone sharing the burden they carry.
  • Learn – If you want to help your fellow man, start with yourself.  Understand the voice of others.  Start with a book by Robin Diangelo called “White Fragility.  Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.” Then keep reading – try these recommended books. After that, keep educating yourself – here are some suggested films and podcasts.
  • Advocate 
    • Inside the hospital.  When a VIP patient is in the hospital, people bend over backward to make sure they are comfortable, and we constantly ask what we can do to make their stay better.  Do this for EVERY patient.  Make every patient, especially those of color and disadvantage, feel they are a VIP in our care.  Make every colleague and patient and family member trust that you will do whatever is necessary for them to succeed and live well.
    • Outside the hospital- Support activism. Organize White Coats for Black Lives demonstrations. Join local discussions. 

Be part of the conversation.  Be part of the solution.  Don’t wait for another harm to fellow black men and women to stoke the flames further.  I look forward to learning, hearing, and helping right along with you.  

We are all in this together. 

Dr. Danielle Walsh is an Associate Professor of Surgery at East Carolina University in the Division of Pediatric Surgery. After obtaining her undergraduate degree at Columbia College and her medical degree from the University of South Florida College of Medicine, she trained in general surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She also completed a fellowship in fetal surgery and research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a fellowship in pediatric surgery at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She is the General Surgery Residency Program Director and Vice Chair of Diversity and Inclusion at East Carolina University.  She is the 2013-14 President of the Association of Women Surgeons and mother of 2 children.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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