Are You a Racist Patient? What Black Doctors and Nurses Want You to Know

We asked three black doctors and nurses from the U.S. and Canada to share how they've been subjected to racism in the medical field, specifically with a racist patient. These are their stories.

Medical professionals deal with a lot of stressful things every day, like staff shortages, long hours, and massive student loan debt.

But medical professionals who are also BIPOC ( black and Indigenous people of color) have a certain type of added stress: Racist patients who air their ugly biases in plain sight, often humiliatingly, in front of colleagues. (Here are the things you can do to combat racism.)

Darcie Joseph-Watkins, MD, a board-certified anesthesiologist on Long Island, New York, knows what it’s like to be treated, she says, “like scum,” by patients. Dr. Watkins recalls one racist patient who gave her the silent treatment before a scheduled surgery.

“I introduced myself as her anesthesiologist, and she looked me up and down and refused to talk to me,” she says. “She had already met the nurse anesthetist I was working with, who was white and had no problem. She had already met the white nurse in the holding area, no problem.” It was pre-Covid-19, but Dr. Watkins’ friendly handshake was also icily rejected. (These are the ways doctors protect themselves from coronavirus.)

“I said, ‘Even though you won’t shake my hand, I’m still going to take fabulous care of you, but you have to talk to me to receive anesthesia because I need to know your history.'” The standoff drew on so long that the patient’s surgeon had to intervene on Dr. Watkins’ behalf. “Eventually, she allowed me to take care of her, and of course, I gave her great care because I’m sworn to take care of people—whether they’re good, bad, racist or not.”

We spoke to three black doctors and nurses in the U.S. and Canada who share how they’ve been subjected to racism’s ugliness in the medical field.

close up shot of doctor and patient shaking handsPeopleImages/Getty Images

Their medical degrees often come with a minor in microaggressions

Dr. Watkins said she first experienced racism, in a medical setting, while attending SUNY Stony Brook in Stony Brook, New York. As the lone African American woman in her class of 100, she sought to diversify the student body and was soon elected to the admissions committee.

But a classmate took issue with her efforts to add more black and brown faces. “I had a white student in the class e-mail me and say, ‘How does it feel to admit people who are less qualified?” She graduated in 2011, but nine years later, African Americans are still grossly underrepresented at medical schools. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), while 21,869 new enrollees began the 2019 school year, only 1,916 were black or African American.

No, they won’t “go back” to their “country”

There’s no shortage of verbal abuse for healthcare heroes of color. Amelie Celestin, a licensed practical nurse in Quebec, Canada, was cruelly berated by a racist patient while helping him get dressed. “He didn’t like the way I was doing things, so he got mad and started calling me the N-word and telling me to go back to my country,” says Celestin, who is of Haitian descent.

Still, she didn’t skip a beat in standing up for herself. “I proceeded to tell him,” she says, “that this is as much my country as it is his.”

Your bedside confessions can be super awkward

Stephano Clermont, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, in New York City, will never forget the patient who laid bare his racism while recovering from open-heart surgery. “I’m racist as f—,” Clermont recalls of the racist patient’s confession. “He said, ‘I don’t like black people. My family, we don’t like black people. But, since I’ve been here, I’ve had some black people taking care of me. And I now realize how wrong I was in having these stereotypes and beliefs.'”

Clermont remembers feeling the heaviness after the patient unloaded, but then the conversation got even more awkward. “He had that moment where he was asking for forgiveness,” recalls Clermont. “And it was odd, because I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know you, and I can’t forgive you for things that you’ve done to other people—that’s up to you and them to figure that out.'”

doctor talking to patient on examination tablemonkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

They can tell when you “prefer” their white counterparts

The microaggressions continued into Dr. Watkins’ residency when she made the rounds on an OB/GYN rotation giving mothers in labor their epidurals. “I was very good at it,” she says, “and I went to ask a patient if she wanted an epidural, and something about the way she said it, [felt off.] “She said, ‘No, no, no, I want the attending [physician] to do it.’ I sent in a white co-resident to do the epidural, and I made sure the resident introduced herself as a resident to see whether she’d get the same response—and she did not. The patient was more than happy to sign up for the epidural, saying, ‘Oh, no problem! You’re a resident? Don’t worry about it, I’m sure you’ll do a good job.'”

Dr. Watkins says the slight was “hurtful,” but reminded herself of the bigger picture. “You do [the job] for all the other people who appreciate your work.”

Yes, they are qualified to be your doctor

Despite her white coat, and MD distinction, some of Dr. Watkins’ patients cannot believe she’s a doctor. “They automatically think that I’m a nurse. [Nurses are] great, but there are African-American doctors, too. I walk into a room and, ‘Oh, you’re here to collect my urine.'” When a white nurse joins her at a patient’s bedside, the racial bias often reappears.

“If I present myself with the nurse anesthetist, and the nurse anesthetist is Caucasian, they think the nurse anesthetist is the doctor, and I’m the nurse. And the nurse anesthetist will nearly always turn red and say, ‘No, actually, Dr. Watkins is the attending, and I’m the nurse anesthetist.’ So, it’s quite strange.” (These are the things nurses secretly wish you’d stop doing.)

Even if you hate them, you may be stuck with them for a while

Clermont says he’s been fortunate to be relatively unscathed when it comes to being subjected to racism from patients, but there have been a few jarring moments like when a patient pulled back their gown to reveal a swastika tattoo. “It’s like, how do you [internally] reconcile that in that moment?”

And then there have been others who have refused his care, claiming they want a nurse of another gender. But, Clermont has mulled what would happen if a patient baldly requested another, non-black nurse. “If those are your wishes, then I will not [take care of you], and it’s up to the institution to then accommodate you, and they may not be able to accommodate you. From that point, I don’t know what happens,” he adds, “but I would be respectful.”

Sources
  • Darcie Joseph-Watkins, MD, a board-certified anesthesiologist, Long Island, New York
  • Association of American Medical Colleges: “The Majority of U.S. Medical Students Are Women, New Data Show”
  • Amelie Celestin, LPN, a licensed practical nurse, Quebec, Canada
  • Stephano Clermont, CRNA, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, New York City