You can’t be what you can’t see.

08 Dec 2021

By Sheina Theodore, MD

I was born and raised in NYC. The product of two Haitian immigrant parents. I saw my parents sacrifice everything for me, just so that the playing field would be leveled. I was fortunate to have them pushing me and making it possible for me to seize many opportunities. One of which was my acceptance into The Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, a B.S./M.D. program whose mission was to increase the number of minority physicians in order to care for underserved communities. Through this program, I participated in many community outreach efforts. These efforts were centered around understanding the barriers to health care, treating the patient as a whole (understanding different cultures, beliefs, socioeconomic situations, and how all this can deeply affect the overall wellbeing of our patients), and recruitment of future leaders who will aid in carrying out the mission of the school.

I always knew how important this mission was and still is, but this importance was highlighted by a  specific patient encounter. There was an African American patient who was described at sign out as “very difficult and had issues understanding his care”. At the time of rounds the patient was so happy to see a black doctor. He stated that he had never had a black doctor, much less  a black surgeon. With further discussion he explained to me that he had been too embarrassed to ask questions this far into his difficult hospital course, which included multiple admissions for complex issues over the last few months. He didn’t understand the “lingo” used and he was uncomfortable with speaking up. He told me all about his niece and how smart she was. He said, “I know she can be whatever she wants to be when she grows up, but I’m going to tell her I met a doctor and that she can do it too.” He thanked me for my time and congratulated me on my success.

Although this may seem like a positive encounter, I was disappointed. I was disappointed that he had felt unseen and unheard. I was disappointed that someone who had been in and out of the hospital system had never seen a black doctor or surgeon. How can we do better for all our patients?

Surgeons are leaders. They are advocates for a diverse patient population. In order to provide excellent care, there must be  insight into the specific challenges that a patient may face based on a multitude of characteristics. This care is also only provided by a team effort. All members of the team being equal and, not only integrated, but deeply included. The differences we have amongst ourselves and our patients should not divide us, but instead they should strengthen our bonds. The team should reflect the diversity of the patients served. The more diverse the team and leadership the more attractive the environment will be perceived by potential trainees. Everyone looks for a sense of belonging. This starts with an inviting, diverse, and equal environment. It continues with active and ongoing efforts to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) competencies. This can be accomplished by starting early with medical students or even undergraduates – implementing information sessions to debunk the myths and misconceptions which keep our field from achieving our DEI effort goals. Our patients deserve this.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

Sheina Theodore, MD is a surgical critical care fellow at Boston Medical Center. She is a native New Yorker and first generation Haitian-American. She received her B.S. from The Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education (CUNY, City College) and went on to receive her medical degree at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. Her professional interest includes becoming an acute care surgeon, a surgical educator, and a health care advocate for the underserved. You can follow her on twitter at @S_Theodore_MD

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