Racism and the Off-Duty Doctor

How my hospital ID has become an “I exist” card.

In medical residency, I trained at a county hospital in Los Angeles. Black and Brown patients lay on gurneys in the emergency room and lined the halls on the wards. Our patients were mostly poor, often undocumented. The doctors were mostly White.

One of my Guatemalan patients told me that on the difficult, monthlong walk into the U.S., contending with blisters and diarrhea, she’d learned that our hospital was the first place to get decent, free care.

As residents, we worked and lived in the hospital so many nights, it felt like home.

On one of my days off, in street clothes—jeans and a T-shirt—I went into the hospital to finish dictating some patient notes. It was morning. As usual, I went through the metal detector coming into the hospital. I collected my stale coffee from the cafeteria. Later that morning, I got stopped by a police guard coming out of the bathroom, suspicious I might have been shooting up in one of the bathroom stalls. I presented my doctor’s ID out of my jeans pocket, and immediately apologies flowed like water from an open faucet from the mouth of the police guard.

My dark skin is so much like my patients’. I learned never to walk the hospital without an ID. Until then, the hospital had felt like home. Suddenly, it was not a home where I could move freely without question. It was no longer my home.

A few months later after a long on-call shift, I decide to drive to the ocean. Making my way to the water feels like making my way home. This is a habit of mine. The air by the water is fresh and clean and welcoming. It opens the lungs after 30 continual hours in the hospital.

The neighboring cities of Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach are beautiful, with strips of bars and flocks of White folks that flood them in the evening hours. It’s 11 p.m. on a Thursday and beachfront parking is full. I want to bypass the crowds and the bars and go sit on the beach to clear my head.

As I circle for parking in my sister’s black, beat-up 2004 Jetta, I can see a cop car eye me as I come around the block again in search of parking.

My black, beat-up car and my nearly black skin in this dark night.

My third time around the block, the cop starts to follow me on my parking search, a slow dance around a three-block radius. He pulls me over.

The cop is rude. He flashes his light onto the back seat, where he suspiciously eyes an ophthalmoscope and reflex hammer. He shines the light in my eyes and asks what the paraphernalia in the back seat is all about.

He doesn’t give me a chance to answer. He asks for my driver’s license and registration and proof of insurance, his voice finding its footing somewhere between irritated and angry.

I am nervous. I was living in New York on 9/11, and immediately afterwards I saw fear in older White women’s eyes as they looked at me. It is a look I recognize in my dying patients—the fear—but it always catches me off guard when I look into someone’s eyes and realize I am the thing they fear.

Back in the Jetta, my white coat hangs off the back of my driver’s seat. My doctor’s ID hangs off my white coat close to the driver’s side window. The policeman’s flashlight catches the ID and he asks if I am a doctor. I say yes, at LA County a few miles away.

The pile of papers in his hand—driver’s license, registration, proof of insurance—become like a lotus flower as he opens his palms and they flow back to me.

He apologizes and apologizes. He says he didn’t realize I was a doctor.

He didn’t realize that I worked at the hospital, the trauma center that takes care of cops when they get hurt or shot.

My doctor’s ID becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card. An “I exist” card.

I exist. I exist. Something to distinguish me from the Black, the Brown, the sick, the poor, the nameless, the undocumented—from my patients.

Sometimes when I fill out death certificates I wish I could write the cause of death as poverty. Or American racism.

What if I had been a plumber, looking for the sea after a hard day’s work? What if I had been one of my patients, Black and Brown and nameless?

I remember taking care of an undocumented Mexican man who worked and worked for four decades in the vineyards of Napa. He never had health insurance.

I saw him in the hospital when his bone marrow finally failed, exhausted by decades of fieldwork. His body was announcing its existence the only way it could.

If the soul is ignored long enough, the body rebels. A mass in the throat rises to the surface of the skin. A cavity in a lung riddled with tuberculosis starts to bleed. The body announces its existence.

Sometimes when I fill out death certificates, I wish I could write the cause of death as poverty. Or American racism.

As a doctor, I am looking to make common cause with a Navajo woman. Uranium mined from the earth and left bare for Navajo folks to fall ill. The uranium in the earth rises as a lump in a Navajo woman’s breast.

As a doctor, I am looking to make common cause with Black boys stopped by the police, shot by police without a doctor’s ID to protect them.

As a doctor who travels to work with patients in Liberia, I am looking to make common cause with the 11,310 Black bodies who died from Ebola. They came into our awareness only in sickness and in death.

Before blood flows from every orifice, can we note their existence?
 The 109 Black bodies killed by the police this year.
 May we learn their names in life? They exist.
 As a doctor, I aim to stand with them before the beautiful fire of their lives becomes ash.
 In this country, the only way I know home is through them. 
I want to reclaim a space for home for the Black, the Brown, the nameless, my patients, myself. I try to find my home through them.

This essay appears by permission of the author, Sriram Shamasunder. Excerpted from Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers and Artists of Color, edited by Shizue Seigel, Pease Press, 2018. 

Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, a poet and doctor at UCSF, has spent the better part of the last 10 years working in Burundi, Haiti, Rwanda and India. He is interested in health equity and narrative equity, working towards a world where lives are of equal value, both in the health care we deliver and the stories we highlight.