As a black professional woman, no matter how much I try to go my way, stay out of trouble, and do my own thing, every once in a while, I am reminded that I can’t. Every once in a while, my sanity is invaded and I am addressed inappropriately because I am black and/or because I am a woman.
Once, when a patient of mine realized I was Nigerian, he said “Oh, you must run really fast! Didn’t you have to hunt and run after animals growing up?”
Another time, a nurse saw me in my ward coat with another across my arm that I had just been given, because I was new at the institution. She had let out a gasp when I was introduced, and announced to the room that she had thought I was the laundry girl delivering another physician’s ward coats.
A dear friend of mine, who is a nurse and who is white, had said, "Oh Toks..." when I told her, and had pointed out that I would not have been addressed like that if I was a man.
Ah yes! I’ve had my share.
That is why I find it so refreshing on days when I am unexpectedly blessed to be reminded—not by myself, but by someone else—that there is more that unites us than divides us. Many more ways in which we are alike, not different, and that these things are so worth embracing.
He’s very different from me, this patient of mine. First, stating the obvious, he’s a man, I’m a woman.
But we are so alike.
We review his most recent CT scan. No evidence that his lung cancer has recurred. He is elated.
“Maybe I’ll get to see my son graduate from college then?” It was more a question than a comment.
I pause. “How old is your son?” I ask.
“Nineteen.” His face lights up as he goes on to tell me about all of his son’s achievements. “He was even in the newspaper!” He shows me a picture.
“He’s in his first year of college now, maybe I’ll get to see him graduate?” he says again, and it still sounds like a question.
He told me he had lost his first son to leukemia. That was very hard. He was only 20.
“I wanted to be the one to go. Then we had Ryan*. My wife left us when he was 9. I’ve had to raise him by myself. It’s not easy, you know.” He chuckled shaking his head. I could only imagine the bittersweet memories that made him smile.
His face softens when I tell him, “I know.”
“We’ve been through a lot together. He’s a good kid. I just want to see him able to stand on his own two feet, before I…” His voice trails off then he finds it quickly and taps his knees. “But for now he needs me. To teach him how to be a man. When I got this diagnosis, this cancer diagnosis, I was ready to…” He brushes one palm quickly against the other, kind of like you would if you were simulating a plane taking off, making a swooshing sound as he did. “I was ready to go.”
Then he shrugged. “But then I thought, who would take care of little Ryan? So, I told myself I was going to beat this. I gave up smoking”—that same move again, with the swooshing sound—“Just like that. These kids. They need us, you know.”
It doesn’t matter that he’s a patient and I am a physician. That I’m Nigerian and he’s Vietnamese. He loads trucks for a living, I treat cancer and blood disorders. He’s a dad and I’m a mum. We speak the common language of a parent’s love. And I so get him. I can so relate.
I think of my little girl, who is only 6. I think of all the dreams and hopes I have for her and all the things I hope to teach her. How I hope to be there for her, at her graduation and beyond. How I keep going on days when I am so exhausted and I just want to give up, because I can’t. Because who will take care of my little girl?
We are so alike. I thank him for sharing.
“I am so glad you gave up smoking. We’ve got to work together here, get you to that graduation and beyond that. It’ll sure mean a lot to you and your young man,” I say.
“Maybe I’ll see him get married?” He asked, making a face. This time he sounded a little more hopeful. More confident.
“Maybe be a grandpa!” I added. We laughed together, sharing the same resolve and hope to see this cancer beaten.
Won’t it be simply amazing and special if in 3 years I get a note saying, —“Just wanted to let you know, Ryan graduated last week. Signed, Ryan’s dad.”
That’ll be a really good day!
There are other days when discussions and issues about gender, race, religious beliefs, nationality, and more, threaten to divide us. On days like that, I choose to remember days like this one.
I choose to be reminded of the more powerful bond of love, compassion, humanity, and hope that unite us. I remind myself that at the core of us all, there is not much that’s different after all. We are all made up of the same kind of stuff—DNA, cells, flesh, and bones. I remind myself that our dreams and hopes, our desires, prayers, aspirations and fears are very much alike.
On days when I am tempted to take sides, I choose to zoom in on all the good we share, and zoom out on the differences. On days like that, I am grateful that organizations like ASCO celebrate diversity.
I choose to remember that in the end, we are all human, we all bleed blood, and we all need a little more love and understanding.
At the very end of it all, while there is so much that is different about us, there is so much more that is the same. Our similarities when celebrated can drown our differences and our diversity spun right, makes us much stronger.
Sometimes, quotes say it better, so I want to share a few of my favorites. I like this one by Linda Ellerbee, a veteran journalist who lived through breast cancer:
“People are pretty much alike. It's only that our differences are more susceptible to definition than our similarities.”
And this one by Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist and a pioneer of modern anthropology (in fact, he has been called the "father of American anthropology”):
“If we were to select the most intelligent, imaginative, energetic, and emotionally stable third of mankind, all races would be present.”
Or one of my very favorites, a snippet of conversation between a mother and a son from the movie My Name is Khan, a film about anti-Muslim prejudice:
Razia Khan: “Remember one thing, son. There are only two kinds of people in this world. Good people who do good deeds. And bad people who do bad. That's the only difference in human beings. There's no other difference. Understood? What did you understand? Tell me. Tell me.”
Rizwan Khan: “Good people. Bad people. No other difference.”
*Name and identifying details changed for patient privacy.