News, On Campus

Tweedy Exposes Intersections of Race and Medicine

Damon Tweedy delivered a lecture as part of the Park Street Corporation Speaker Series, which brings speakers to campus to discuss the theme of the common good. Tweedy’s talk mainly revolved around the broad intersections of race and medicine and his New York Times bestselling book, Black Man in a White Coat, which details the ways race affected his experiences in medical school and beyond.

Although Tweedy did not attend Boston College, he described feeling a strong connection to BC. When he first wanted to write a book and received rejection letters from editors, publishers, and agents, a friend recommended that he contact a freelance editor who was an alumna of BC.  

“We started working, and she said ‘I think you have something here, but you really have to start over.’ So, I guess a few years later, fast-forward, and the rest is history,” he said. “Without her, this would never be possible.”

Before reflecting upon his own life and journey, Tweedy discussed some of the broader intersections of race and medicine. He touched upon how we often converse about race using medical metaphors, like a “poorly healed wound” or “a cancer that attacks us from within,” before segueing into why race cannot be excluded from the narrative history of the medical world.

He cited the 1932 Tuskegee syphilis experiments as an example of the “abuse […] of black bodies” throughout the history of medicine. In these experiments, black men were brought in under the guise of receiving free medical care for their syphilis—in reality, they were being studied to see how syphilis progresses as a disease. They were never told they had syphilis, and they were never informed of the treatments that became available for the disease.

Tweedy reminded the audience that such issues of racism in the medical world are in no way confined to the distant past. He pointed to the photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam wearing blackface in his medical school yearbook as an example and noted that “there were other photos in [the yearbook] that were far more troublesome.” One he found especially horrific was an image of a professor smiling into the camera while holding a mug with text reading “something about ‘There’s more work to do today. There’s still more slaves to be sold.’”

“This was in a community that was 40 percent African-American,” he said. “My first thought was ‘What would that have meant for the patients who were under the care of people in that setting?’”

He argued that when discussions of racism become “a dialogue about whether [the individual] is good or bad … that really misses the whole point.” Instead, he called for more attention to be paid to the underlying implications of a photo like this and the layers of people who must have seen and approved of this photo before its publication. Viewing the issue in this way exposes the more systemic and pervasive nature of the problem, he said.

“Think about the layers of this,” he said. “Someone has a photo, someone takes that, someone prints that, and then all of these layers of people are seeing this and no one is acting. What does that mean for the people in that community in that time and place?”

Tweedy then delved into his own personal story with medicine. He started medical school at Duke University in 1996 with the hope that his experience would not be negatively defined by his racial identity.

But the intersection of race and medicine became even more apparent during his time at Duke, as his grandmother faced a series of health problems, including high blood pressure and strokes—both of which are more likely to affect African-Americans.

Later, a fellow student used Tweedy to practice taking a patient’s blood pressure. When he visited the student health center, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure.

“This hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “Here I am learning about all this in the classroom, and now this happened to me. It’s almost like this is my destiny in some way. This is the destiny of black people. This is also my own personal destiny. How do I solve this?”

This personal experience—and many more experiences with patients while working at different clinics—instilled a deep desire to help others and to work towards more equity in access to medical care in him.

In his search to accomplish this, Tweedy wondered about the ways in which doctors are complicit in medical inequalities. He pointed to one specific study on the ways in which the medical chart itself is biased. It showed that doctors provide better or worse care depending on the descriptions included in the chart.

Beyond being a part of his work in the classroom, racism has had a very real impact on Tweedy in his day-to-day life. From being mistaken for a basketball player instead of a doctor to having a professor assume he was in the classroom to fix the lights, Tweedy has often faced racism throughout his time as a student and a doctor. Now, his strategy is to move on and not allow those people to affect him.

Tweedy has hope for the future. Toward the end of his talk, he displayed a word cloud illustrating the intersecting factors of medicine and race.

“Some people see this as discouraging,” he said. “In some ways, it’s also a sense of hope. It shows me that there are so many different ways for you guys to be part of the solution.”

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor

April 2, 2019