When I was a third year medical student on my surgery rotation, I wanted to observe a particular surgery, so I asked the attending physician if I might be able to scrub in with him. There was a pause during which I felt increasingly uncomfortable. And then, "Of course, a beautiful Asian woman is always welcome to join me." Even now 12 years later, hearing that line in my mind makes me cringe. But what could I do? The power differential was such that I was a student, and my grade was dependent on this man's subjective evaluation of me. I knew that much of what I would be judged on was not my knowledge but rather be based on the unconscious biases of my attending physician. But there was little I could do about it. I sat through an uncomfortable two hours of surgery, attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible while laughing nervously at moments when I knew I was being tested and expected to laugh - the same moments when misogynistic banter was being tossed around me. I was the only woman standing at the operating table. During that time, and for much of my life, my policy toward racist or sexist acts was to look away and pretend it didn't happen, for fear of making things worse for myself.
Now as a hospital medicine doctor working on the front lines of fighting the Coronavirus pandemic, I find it deeply disheartening that in our country and other nations around the world, we have seen a rise in hate crimes against Asians and a surge in racist media coverage of the pandemic. In my younger days, I would have simply looked away, but now I'm reminded of the slogan popularized after the tragedy of 9/11: See something, Say something.
I'm saying something now. I recently sent the letter below to the editor of the Wall Street Journal urging them to recant a biased, xenophobic article. During this time of pandemic, we are seeing the effects of institutional and interpersonal racism manifest in many ways, including the differentially higher rates of infection among African Americans and Latinos in this country. Now is a crucial time for all of us to fight racism in the media by confronting it and speaking out against it.
Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal
Dear Mr. Lemmer,
Tonight I find myself awake at 230 AM. It is not only because of the night shift I had done the day prior or the high anxiety I’ve felt since the Coronavirus pandemic began. I hold an MD and Masters in Public Health and work as a hospital medicine physician in the front lines of defending our population against infection. I couldn’t fall asleep because of an article I had read in the Wall Street Journal from March 23 titled "China is not a Coronavirus Role Model" by John P. Walters. In this article, he calls Covid-19 a "communist virus" and blames the emergence of this pandemic on the Chinese government.
It's been known for decades that a novel virus, toward which we have no immunity, could arise and cause a new pandemic. This could happen at any time and anywhere. It is through no fault of the Chinese people that Covid-19 happened to emerge from Wuhan. Instead of bolstering compassion and solidarity toward the Chinese, Walters urges us to fall back on xenophobic and racist sentiment, to isolate ourselves and point the finger of blame solely at the Chinese.
Yes, the Chinese government was at fault in attempting to hush the emergence of the novel Coronavirus in the beginning, but after it became clear that Covid-19 was a true threat, they have taken drastic measures to contain the virus from spreading across China and the globe. Most of the data we have, which we are now using in the US to prevent and treat Covid-19, have come from the work of scientists and physicians in China.
Furthermore, it’s come to light that US health officials also delayed our ability to prepare effectively for the pandemic. For example, infectious disease specialist Dr. Helen Chu already had the means to test for Covid-19 through her lab, but she was forbidden to do so by health officials. When she went against their advice and tested anyway, her lab immediately discovered a case of community spread of the virus in Seattle, which implied it had actually been circulating for several weeks already. Another botch in the American response was the CDC’s initial requirement that all Covid testing be run only at the CDC or state health authorities, which led to a huge bottleneck in getting widespread testing available.
Governments across the world, including our own, have all made mistakes in fighting this pandemic. But this is not the time to allow political rhetoric and xenophobia to block our vision. We need to place the highest emphasis on science and make every decision based on that. We need more than ever to come together (virtually) and to acknowledge our shared humanity. At no time in our living history has the global wellness of our species been so threatened.
As a physician working on the front lines of fighting this pandemic, I find it deeply disheartening that in our country and other nations around the world, such as Italy, we have allowed racism and xenophobia to rear its ugly head again in this new permutation. The number of harassment and assault cases toward Asians in the US has increased dramatically in the past weeks. Many Asian Americans now fear for their own safety and the safety of their children. Everyday there are more cases of Asians in the US being cursed at, spit on, and even physically assaulted as racism surges alongside the number of new infectious cases.
This situation is only made worse by bigoted articles in the media that encourage xenophobia toward China. Walters called Covid-19 a “communist virus,” which is absurd considering that the virus itself is nonpartisan and does not discriminate against race or political leaning in who it infects and kills. This type of microaggression is further highlighted by our own President calling the novel Coronavirus “the Chinese virus.”
Please do your part in fighting this pandemic by reporting in a scientifically sound way that is free from xenophobic and racist content. I would like to request that the Wall Street Journal recant the aforementioned article as an expression of apology to all Americans who stand against racism
In our society, women are often given the message, “Well, your baby is healthy, so you should just be grateful instead of dwelling on your own pain or birth trauma.”
Yes, I am grateful. When I look upon my daughter’s face, I see such purity there. At just three months' of age, she has a complete absence of guile or even the ability to understand what that might mean. I see in my daughter the original perfection of a human soul.
I am grateful beyond words to have her in my life. At the same time, her birth and the pregnancy have left deep marks on my body and soul that I am struggling to recover from. It would be unfair not to validate and fully acknowledge this.
After my c-section, I sat, walked, and slept curled up, with my chest drawing toward my thighs. The pain at my incision site was so intense that I was constantly scared of aggravating it. Over time, I became hunched in my posture, which only heightened all my fears.
One day as I tried standing up straight, I realized that my belly felt timid and vulnerable, but there was no pain. I wondered how long I had been stuck folded forward after the pain had gone away. I felt a sense of panic that my body was no longer my own, that I had lost touch with the sensations of my own body, despite being a student of yoga for the past 15 years.
I made a resolution that I would get back in touch with myself and strengthen my core from the inside out. I began taking physical therapist Sarah Duvall’s course on postpartum exercise. I also completed training in Wendy Foster’s postnatal Pilates course.
Today I did my first postpartum handstand. It thrilled me to be able to get upside down, even for an instant. Until this moment, the thought of kicking my feet above my head had seemed painfully impossible. I am still far away from feeling at home in my body, but I know I have begun the journey.
This fall, I’ll begin teaching yoga again for the first time since pregnancy. I invite you to join me on a journey together as we fumble, with grace, toward becoming whole and strong.
Ranger Eric told me that if I turned left at the ridge line, I would find numerous memorials built by family members of those whose ashes had been scattered over the ridge. The first one I encountered belonged to a woman who, I was startled to realize, had died at age 31, three years younger than I am today. I walked farther along the ridge and found wooden plaques, stone cairns, a spray painted boot...the belongings of those who have passed on, placed here by those who remain, in an attempt to make sense of their departure.
I sat at the edge of the sheer drop, the memorials at my back. I felt oddly at home. For the first time in my life, I felt at home as a citizen of this earth. At home in my smallness before the hugeness of the world.
I imagine their relatives had placed these memorials here because they felt this was where their loved ones belonged. I've wandered a lot in my life. I can't say that I've been searching for a "home" because a home cannot be defined by a place. But, in the back of my mind, I've been subtly searching for a sense of "placeness."
Whenever I visited my relatives in China, I was known as the American. Yet growing up in Arizona in the 1990s, I was constantly asked where I was from. If I replied, "Here," it was followed by, "But where are you really from?" I've never had a place that I could name, "That's where I'm from. That is the place that has shaped who I am." Perhaps one day I will wake up and find myself long enough in a place that I will claim it as my own. I will be surprised that my children have grown up there.
For now I sit quietly and watch the way that shadows and light dance across an expansive valley. If I were from this area, I would want my ashes scattered here. Let my ashes spread to the far corners of the John Day Valley until it becomes dust immemorial and retains no part of who I used to be. Build me a stone cairn that receives the last caress of warmth as the sun dips below the mountains on the opposite bank.
I loved what Kristin Neff, PhD, psychologist and compassion researcher, had to say about perfectionism. She really nailed it regarding this complex concept that I've been mulling over for years:
"Perfectionism is defined as the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one's goals, with no allowance for falling short of one's ideals. Perfectionists experience enormous stress and anxiety about getting things exactly right, and they feel devastated when they don't. The unrealistically high expectations of perfectionists mean that they will inevitably be disappointed. By seeing things in black-and-white terms--either I'm perfect or I'm worthless--perfectionists are continually dissatisfied with themselves."
This simple explanation illuminates for me why I have been unhappy for such large chunks of my life. Now that I'm in my 30's, I'm beginning to understand that so many things in life are out of my control. And these factors ultimately determine "success" or "failure" just as much as my personal effort or talents.
Changing thought patterns or habits is hard. It takes time, practice, and conscientiousness. It's like carving a new route for water to flow down when it has been meandering down the same canyon path for the last thousand years. When something goes wrong, the same barrage of negative thoughts flood my mind, but now I can choose to slowly step away from perfectionism and closer toward self compassion. I can look at a difficult situation and place my hands on my own shoulders and say, "That was really hard. Honey, you did the best that you could in that moment."
Today I mailed off a card to the wife of one of my patients. The card was a print of a watercolor of vibrant red flowers. This card was painted by a woman whose home I visited three years as she was dying of end stage breast cancer.
The cancer had spread to her lungs, causing fluid to build up in the lining around her lungs. She had a tube placed in her chest that constantly drained a pale yellow fluid in an attempt to give her lungs room to expand and her the ability to breathe. She knew she was dying. She was determined to do it on her own terms, in her home, surrounded by the flowers that she loved.
She had a marvelous garden. As we sat in her living room, her flowers outside were erupting with brilliance. Each day as she grew weaker and the time that she could paint grew shorter, she began to paint with even more fervor. Recently finished works were scattered about her house, capturing the defiance of life even as the shadows grew longer with the coming night.
As my preceptor and I walked toward the door, she handed each of us a packet of cards with her paintings on them. Doctors are not supposed to accept gifts from their patients, and I had never accepted anything before. But in that moment, it felt right. She had an adoring circle of friends and relatives but no children. Her paintings were an important piece of her legacy. With her offering of this gift and our acceptance, we created an unerasable, tangible trace of her in the world that would remain after she was gone.
* * * * *
It's taken me two months to write to my patient's wife. I had wanted to write to her many times before today, but when I thought about what had happened, my guts twisted up inside and my breath caught in my throat. He had passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving in the wake of his death, a bewildered wife and his strong daughter, who was now holding everything together. She reminded me of my father's daughter. I think about the these two women now, mother and daughter. They remind me that for those of us who remain, there is only one thing left to do.
T O L I V E.