A few days ago, I stepped onto an elevator and the doors began to close behind me. Just before they shut, I heard a voice, “Hold the elevator!” Quickly, I turned and pushed the “door open” button as a young black man in custodial uniform entered with his cleaning supplies. He proceeded to the back right corner and I stood in the back left corner… just the two of us alone on the elevator…awkward right.
I have never understood why the elevator has to be a place of silence. It was as if we were two grown men sitting in time out. Yes, I am that guy, the guy who breaks the rule and always talks in the elevator. Just think about it, you can sit in an awkward silence, or you can take a risk and hope you strike good conversation. I typically choose the latter. So I spoke, “How’s your day going brother?” The look on his face was priceless. He looked up as if I was speaking to someone else. Following his confirmation that we were the only two present, with little to no confidence in his voice he mumbled, “ I’m good.” We then spent the next 5-10 seconds exclaiming our excitement to be done with the work day. After the doors opened on the ground floor, he began on his way then looked back at me and said, “I’m surprised you spoke to me, most of yall don’t”. Assuming “yall” was referring to physicians in general, I said, “Well, we all we got.” This phrase is making reference to an old movie (that I do not necessarily recommend), and carries a certain connotation of respect and brotherhood. Understanding what I meant, he replied, “Naw, yall are usually the worst ones.” In other words, he felt as though minority physicians, more specifically black male physicians, ignore and devalue him.
I left work that day infuriated! How can it be that with so few minority doctors, and even fewer black men physicians, we make others feel this way? What has happened to us that one day we all wanted to be doctors so we could care for the underserved, and the following day we can’t say hello to them in an elevator. I’ll care for you if I get reimbursed….I’ll be your doctor but not your friend…. We can chat in the clinic but not on the elevator! What has happened!!!
Honestly, I am uncertain why I became so upset that evening. I knew exactly what he was talking about and I see it on a regular basis. I challenge you to pay close attention to custodial staff in a hospital and see who they are speaking with. See if anyone speaks to them at all. See if minority physicians speak to them. I have done this little test, and I have come to similar conclusions as the young man on the elevator.
I speak for myself in this statement; being a black male doctor does not define me as a person, nor does it define my purpose in life. Medicine is a means by which I help people, with an emphasis on helping the underserved. If I was not a physician, my mission to help the poor would remain, I would simply do it in another capacity. I can help that young man (note, I am not assuming he is poor, this is strictly for the purpose of illustration) much more by speaking to him and mentoring him pertaining to life in general than I can as only his physician. When we don the white coat, people look to us with respect and we become influential to them. There is an immediate understanding that we have a certain level of self-discipline and self-control which was necessary to become a physician. I for one, feel obligated to fulfill the positive roles in which we are viewed; always being an example in speech, conduct, and love. When a young black man sees me in the hospital, no matter what his job is, I want him to see me as a potential mentor, and not to view me with contempt as a sell-out.
Image Credit: http://www.wikihow.com/Practice-Good-Elevator-Etiquette