SR: Could you elaborate on one of these transformational experiences?
Explore This IssueNovember 2021
DT: The first occurred when I was a resident. I walked into the operating room one day, and posted on the wall of the room was a piece of paper with a typewritten story with a racial slur. This is a difficult experience to talk about, even now. And as I reflect on it, I ask that you consider it from the context of the time. I was a PGY2 at a residency program in rural southeastern Minnesota. The year was 1993. This situation reflected an insular community’s lack of exposure to diversity and people of different backgrounds and races. I remember reading the written words of the story and feeling disbelief. I could not believe I was reading this while standing in a world-class organization. And I could not let go of it. For days, I walked into that operating room with this sign continuing to hang there. I didn’t feel empowered to take it down. And I didn’t feel empowered to say anything to anybody in the room.
SR: That sounds terrifying—and incredibly upsetting. What did you do?
DT: I ended up taking my surgical notebook and transcribing the story word for word. I didn’t feel like I could tear it down, so I transcribed it. Word for word. And then I went to my chairman with a copy of what was written in the posted story as well as a letter that I had drafted to the CEO of the hospital. Here I was, at an institution where I was honored to be training. And, as one of the few people of color in the entire organization, I felt a sense of responsibility to speak up. And that decision—to say something—was a transformational moment for me. I sat before my chairman and I asked him for his support in sending this letter I had written.
And he did. He supported me, as did my program director. The CEO of the hospital later sent me a handwritten note, apologizing and agreeing the incident was unacceptable. This experience taught me how to channel my anger productively and to ask myself in moments of challenge, “What can I do to be productive about this?” I think the supportive response that I received, as a result of speaking up, from people who did not share my lived experience as a person of color also helped me reevaluate my own bias.