Understanding the symbolic power of my white coat, part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about deciding whether or not to wear my white coat at a protest about recent events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, examples of the more widespread problem of violence against communities of color in this country. As I’ve considered these events and their implications, I find I have a bit more to say.

On International Human Rights Day (December 10th), 20-30 OHSU students lay down in the atrium of the CLSB for four minutes, representing the four hours that the teenaged, unarmed Michael Brown lay on the pavement after being shot by a police officer. Unlike Michael Brown, we were not alone. Students from over 70 medical schools participated in this symbolic gesture and the hash tag #whitecoats4blacklives was trending on Facebook by the end of the day (you will not find OHSU’s name on the list of schools participating, as students were instructed to cover the logo on our white coats and not to affiliate ourselves with the university*). I participated in this gesture with tears in my eyes and hope in my heart. Just a week before, I wondered about the validity of wearing my white coat to a public protest – why was I OK with participating in a national movement that prominently featured this symbol?

I realized that I consider structural violence a public health issue. Put more simply, I think that when young black men unnecessarily are killed, this is a public health issue, just like preventable deaths from suicides and car accidents are public health issues. I also consider it a human rights issue.

I understand that there is often disagreement about what constitutes a public health or human rights issue. For example, we differ broadly on what types of health services we think should be provided by the government in the interest of public health. I am not asking every medical student and doctor to agree, but I am also unwilling to accept the claim that this issue, however contentious, is exclusively personal or political. Doctors do not become blank slates when we put our white coats on – we are living, feeling interpreters of the Oath of Geneva’s mandate to “consecrate [our lives] to the service of humanity.” Per my interpretation of this Oath, if I see an egregious loss of human life, I must speak out against it not just as a citizen, but as a physician in training.

Just as doctors who crusade for seatbelt education aren’t anti-driver, I’m not anti-police. I respect our first responders and cannot imagine a society without them. I think that doctors can, and do, take public positions (for vaccines, against cigarette smoking) without compromising our integrity; that we can, like the Oath of Geneva instructs, “not permit considerations of age, disease, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing, or any other factor to intervene between [our] duty and [our] patient[s].”

I have learned a great deal over the past few weeks. I have learned that when I write about things that anger and sadden me, I feel more empowered. I have learned that many of my colleagues feel angered and saddened by the same things that anger and sadden me, and that we can seek solace and inspiration in each other. I have learned that for me, structural violence is a human rights and public health issue. I have learned that some in my profession see contentious issues as those to be avoided, but that I do not. I have found that productive dialogue around scary topics is scary, but helpful. Finally, as we lay on the ground in the CLSB, I learned that, as the Oath of Geneva says, my colleagues are my brothers and sisters.

Thank you for reading this piece and the previous. As you can tell, I will remember the last few months of 2014 as a time when my social conscience was shaken awake despite the pressing academic demands of medical school. I hope that I keep paying attention to and talking about human rights and public health issues over the course of my career, and I encourage my peers to do so as well, even if your issues are different from my own. I think that’s part of the job description.

* OHSU understands the white coat is emblematic of the medical profession, however, as a public entity, OHSU cannot endorse a political act. OHSU welcomes robust debate about important issues and supports individual rights to free speech and values its active, engaged student body.

One response to “Understanding the symbolic power of my white coat, part II

  1. AAMC President and CEO, Dr. Darrell Kirch, speaks out on this issue: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/academic-medicine-social-justice-darrell-g-kirch-m-d-

    “I was pleased to see so many of our medical students make their voices heard in a peaceful and powerful way, sparking dialogue rather than division… By donning their white coats and declaring that black lives matter, medical students embodied the principles of trust and humanistic care that the white coat represents.”

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