#WeBelong, Day 4 of 7

Hospital ward, circa 1998

*knocking on the wall*

Me: “Hello. . . Um, are you. , .”

I reconciled your name on my note card. You looked up at me with an inexplicable expression.

You: “Yes?”

Your eyes narrowed in suspicion. And I bristled.
I stood up taller and cleared my throat in an effort to increase my psychological size. You placed your crossword puzzle face down on the tray table and raised your eyebrows.

Me: “Um, yes. My name is Dr. Draper and I’m one of the doctors that’ll be caring for you.”
You: “You my doctor?”
Me: “I am.”

Just then, I noticed you release the tiniest, almost imperceptible inward sigh. Which was admittedly surprising to me.

Here’s why:

Your pecan complexion and greying temples mirrored those of my own family. This wasn’t what I expected.
The throaty soul in your voice sounded like home. And the rows of firm curls in the perfect pattern of a recent roller set reminded me of the church ladies in my Auntie Renee’s beauty shop.


But you weren’t happy to see me. In fact, you seemed disappointed.

For real.
You were nearing your 9th decade. And my experience with those like you was usually the complete opposite of this. I was used to eyes glistening with proud tears. And sometimes? Even being pulled in for a hug.

“Keep going, baby!” they’d say.

But not you. Not today.
Still, you allowed me to do the history & physical. Your answers were staccato and your body was cooperative but stiff. And every so often your eyes drifted toward the door.

As if you were looking for someone else.

Me: “Is everything okay?”
You: “It’s fine.”

But was it?
I didn’t have the confidence to probe. So I just did the best I could.

When my team returned with our attending, you were like a different person. Now you looked more comfortable. And, well. . . satisfied.

Now your daughter was at the bedside with you. She gave me a nod.
And I appreciated that nod of acknowledgment given that I was the only Black person on that team.

My attending finished up his exam and answered several questions (which now, you had.) He even cracked a few jokes with you, which you seemed to like.

And that was that.
Later that afternoon I ran into your daughter near the vending machines.

Her: “Hey again!”
Me: “Oh, hey!”

She slid a dollar into the machine and punched in a key for some M&Ms.

Her: “Girl, was my mama ice-grilling you?”

I froze, then winced and nodded.

Ice-grill, as in a steely—and usually unfriendly—stare.

Me: “Well, at least she warmed up when my attending came in.”
Her: *eye roll* “Girl. That’s ‘cause he white.”

She said it so matter-of-factly—tapping M&Ms into her palm like this declaration was no big deal.

Me: “Wait, what?”
Her: “It’s crazy. Mama grew up down south—like deep in Alabama during Jim Crow. And I think she associate what’s good with what’s white. And, to this day, will tell you to your face that she don’t want no ‘colored doctor’ seeing her.”

She shook her head.
Her: “Sad, ain’t it?”

I didn’t know what to say.

Her: “And I tell her, ‘Mama, you colored yourself. You ain’t making no sense.’ But she don’t budge.”

I gave a tiny nod.

Her: “So don’t take it personal, hear? She seen a lot in her life, you know?”

I nodded again.
A few days after your discharge, I recounted that experience to my dad over the phone.

Him: “Yeah, your Mudear was like that, too. But a lot of it was because the places that saw us were run down and low on stuff. The whites only places were nicer.”
Me: “The doctors, too?”
Him: “I guess if everything is shiny and clean in one place and not the other, you might believe that.”
Me: *listening*
Him: “But a lot can change in a generation, you know?”

Yeah. I do know.

That was over 20 years ago. But I still think of you and that day sometimes.
Even as I walk into Grady, I am reminded of your experience. Built in the shape of an H for intentional segregation, those like you and my Mudear (grandmother) felt the sting of thread bare, unlaundered sheets and longer waits.


Though it hurt that day, I understood.
That wasn’t the last time I’d have a Black patient not want me as their doctor solely based on race. But instead of getting mad or hurt, I remember that this is a casualty of structural racism.

And that a lot can change in a generation.

You know?

#WeBelong 💛

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More from @gradydoctor

Jul 9
#WeBelong, Day 2 of 7

Grady wards, 2009

Pt: “Hey Doc Manning, you got any crumbsnatchers?”
Me: “Yup. Two wild ones.”
Pt: *squints* “Ooooh! They ain’t wild, is they?”
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Pt: “Whaat? Lawd!”

My team looked puzzled.

Me: “Hold up. Do y’all know what a crumbsnatcher is?”


One of the interns spoke first.

Her: “I mean, from context clues, my guess is . . is it . . . kids?”
Pt: *points* “Ding-Ding!”

Me: “Yeah. Kids. Usually little ones. ”
Pt: “Yeah and the type that cut the fool out in public.”


Student: “Cut the fool?”

The patient and I exchanged glances. Then we exploded in laughter. So did the nurse who was flushing his IV.
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I considered myself one of the ones who knew. Knew what to say and what things weren’t cool.


I spoke your pronouns with my whole chest. Bent over backwards to prove that I was one of the good ones. And, for the most part, you seemed appreciative.
I felt like I was affirming you. And modeling all the the things that should be modeled.

Then one day we were talking about a transgender patient on rounds. And, while gender had nothing to do with why she was hospitalized, that aspect kept taking center stage.

I could feel things getting weird. You shifted on your feet and stared at a spot on the floor. That’s how I knew.

Then someone said something that made you look up.

Them: “Well, this patient is still, you know, transitioning. Like from male to female.”

This patient.
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July 1, 1996

Her: “This one looks straightforward. Ran out of meds, feels short-winded.” *stares at index card* “Vitals underwhelming.”

I stared at her trying to look cool. Although cool is not what I felt.

Her: “You know where the Red Zone is, right?”
I mean, yeah. Technically I did know where it was from our orientation week a few days before. But I didn’t KNOW know.

She must’ve read my mind.

Her: “Don’t worry. There’s only 2 zones. I’ll be right down. Just go do the H&P and start the work up while I finish up here.”
She stomped her feet back into her clogs and walked off.

I turned her words over in my head:

“Do the H&P” — okay, that I could manage. But that other part? That’s what scared me to death:

“Start the work up.”

I wiped my face with my palm and bit my lip.

Oh no.
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I was rounding with my team recently and you were our new patient. A student had presented your case at the bedside. You listened intently and offered corrections where needed. After examining you, I paused and twisted my mouth under my mask.

I narrowed my eyes.
This didn’t make sense to me. And to be clear— it may very well have made sense to someone else.

Just not me.

You: “You alright over there, doc? Look like your wheels turning hard.”


Me: “You got me. Yeah, I’m just trying to put this all together.”

Like, your physical exam fit the story. And part of your lab tests and imaging aligned with the leading diagnosis. But then there was this other part of your blood work that threw a curveball.


And so. I told you and my team exactly that.

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Time of death: 3:46 PM.

The ICU fell silent. A heavy cloak of sorrow pressed down on the room.


The familiar rush of heat came to my face. Next came the prickling in my eyes. Once the tears started I knew they wouldn’t stop.


I needed to get out of there.
She was my patient. And out of deference I knew I should still myself and stand in the awful with the team.

But I needed to get out of there. Before I started to cry.

Because we don’t do that. Not here. Not in front of people.

At least, that’s what I’d been taught.
See, when I was a med student on my OB rotation, I was assisting on an emergency delivery. When the baby was born, there was no pulse or spontaneous breaths.

All hell broke loose.

Thumbs compressing a tiny chest. Meds. Intubation and O2.

And then . . . nothing.

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Him: “I got a bone to pick with you.”
Me: “Me?”
Him: “You.”

He pointed at me for emphasis.

Him: “I’m not so sure I like how you was talking ‘bout me.”

I sifted through my head to try to think of any verbal missteps. I waited to see what he’d say next.
Him: “I know you said y’all was gon’ do some ‘shop talking’ about me. But look like you forgot I was even there when you got to saying what you was gon’ say.”

I felt my face grow warm. I decided to just keep listening.

Him: “You talking ‘bout some ‘That’s impressive!’”
Wait. Was that the bad part?

My brow furrowed and I pressed my lips together. He went on.

Him: “But like, I knew from how you said it that you ain’t mean impressive in a good way. I mean, not how most things that impress a person impress ‘em.”

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