By Ellen Goldbaum
Published June 8, 2020
Medical students and residents are engaged in the intense work of learning how to become physicians who can best serve the communities where they will eventually practice. At the same time, what’s happening in society at large has a major impact on shaping their medical education.
Last week, students, medical residents, faculty and administrators of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and the units in UB’s academic health center took action to respond to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and the international protests it has engendered against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Struggling to breathe’
In a statement calling on Buffalo’s physicians, “workers at medical front lines,” to participate in a June 5 march of solidarity with protesters “at community front lines,” organizer and UB obstetrics and gynecology medical resident Ashley Jeanlus, wrote: “The historical subjugation of people of color in the United States of America has made them vulnerable to police violence and the coronavirus alike. While we continue to treat those who cannot breathe inside the hospital, we also choose to stand alongside those in the streets struggling to breathe.”
Jeanlus and her colleagues have been here before. As a medical student, she organized demonstrations in response to the killing of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police in 2014. “His last words were also ‘I can’t breathe,’” she recalled.
“Health care professionals need to address racism and injustice by first looking within and then at their communities,” she continued. “We need to promote the recruitment, retention, and hiring of Black, and Latinx, physicians in medical school teaching, research, and leadership positions. Additionally, there needs to be increased funding and promotion of research on the health effects of racism … I’m grateful for my co-residents, program director and chair who are all supportive.”
More than 250 medical students, residents, faculty, staff and other health care workers attended the “white coats 4 black lives” march, walking from the Jacobs School to Niagara Square, where they knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time George Floyd was held on the ground.
Earlier last week, members of the Jacobs School chapter of the Student National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization focused on the needs of medical students of color, and Polity, the school’s student government, came together with other student groups to issue a joint resolution “to acknowledge and respond to the recent acts of race-based violence against black people nationally.”
According to SNMA chapter president Melissa Sloley, a student in the Class of 2023, “SNMA strives to create a safe and welcoming environment for students of underrepresented backgrounds. The death of George Floyd unraveled this perceived safe environment for our students and underscored the racial struggles that we continue to experience and oftentimes try to ignore.
‘Silence was not the answer’
“This time was different though,” Sloley continued. “We realized that students were hurting and waiting to hear from our school to address the issues going on around the country. Silence was not the answer.”
With the support of other Jacobs School groups, such as the Asian-Pacific American Medical Student Association (APAMSA), the Human Rights Initiative (HRI) and the school’s chapter of the American Medical Association (AMA), SNMA and Polity collaborated on the resolution, which was distributed to all Jacobs School faculty, staff and students in the school on Wednesday.
The resolution notes that a “lack of awareness of racial bias in the police force is endemic across the U.S. as well as in our own communities.” It formally endorsed the SNMA’s statement and petition, and further resolved support for urgent reforms to the criminal justice system and law enforcement agencies that address police violence and racial disparities in policing. Polity resolved to collaborate with SNMA to provide recommendations “geared towards the School and the contracted police department,” which will be presented in a future document.
Sloley and Adetayo Oladele-Ajose, a student representative with Polity and a member of the Class of 2023, explained that this year, the Jacobs School chapter of SNMA has founded programs that strive to empower the black community through volunteer work, community service, education, mentorship and other forms of social engagement.
“Through programs and events centered on healing, and a student-led town hall, we hope to lead the conversation and inspire faculty and staff to develop programs at our institution to further our efforts mentioned above,” they said. “That includes hiring more black and female faculty and staff in both educational, administrative, and support roles; establishing protocols and timelines for a timely response to national crises like these on the administrative level; and directly addressing issues of institutional racism within our course modules and discussions.
“Beyond that, we hope to inspire our non-black colleagues to raise awareness on their own fronts, engage and give back to vulnerable and underserved populations, and to also take it upon themselves to aid in efforts to break racial barriers and bridge the social gaps in our society.”
Recognizing and speaking out against racism
On the morning of June 1, after a weekend of protests worldwide, Michael Cain, vice president of health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, and several senior administrators, issued a message: “We, the undersigned, join the University at Buffalo President in recognizing the devastating impact the recent brutal and unnecessary deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans have had on students, residents and fellows, faculty, staff and their family members and friends.
“We are outraged by these attacks and share the sense of pain, grief and anger in our community. These horrendous actions demand a commitment to recognize and speak out against racism and nurture empathy, inclusion, diversity, equity and awareness.”
On June 4 the school’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee held a virtual town hall, the first of a series designed to address these issues. It was attended by 172 participants. The purpose was to create a space where members of the Jacobs School could share how the Floyd killing and others have affected them and to share suggestions on creating a more inclusive, diverse Jacobs School community.
A presentation on the contextual history of racism in America was well-received and “deemed necessary for consideration as part of the curriculum,” according to Margarita Dubocovich, SUNY Distinguished Professor and senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion.
And last week, leaders of the units that make up UB’s academic health center, posted this statement, noting that “As a community of students, educators, scientists, staff members and health care providers committed to improving human health by all measures, we are outraged by the brutal death of George Floyd…”
The statement further urged the addressing of structural racism in society and on an individual level. It was signed by Cain; Marsha Lewis, dean of the School of Nursing; James M. O’Donnell, dean of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions; Nancy J. Smyth, dean of the School of Social Work; Joseph J. Zambon, dean of the School of Dental Medicine; and Patricia J. Ohtake, assistant vice president for interprofessional education
In the statement that was circulated to call attention to Friday’s march, Jeanlus reflected on the special responsibilities she and colleagues throughout the health care workforce feel in the face of racial injustice and the pandemic.
“We could not stop the coronavirus from suffocating too many of our patients of color,” she wrote. “But the system of racial injustice that suffocates young black lives, most recently the life of George Floyd, can and needs to stop. We feel it is our professional and political obligation to take a stand in solidarity with those in our community ravaged most by the twin burdens of racism and health disparities. Today we take to the street; tomorrow we return to the hospital to care for you.”