• There are almost as many black men in medical school today as there were 50 years ago.
  • A Black doctor from SUNY Downstate wrote in an essay: "I wear my scrubs everywhere now, seeking to preemptively exonerate my blackness with my professional garb."
  • He says scrubs don't give him a new identity, but may change people's perception of him.
  • While COVID has highlighted health disparities, these aren't new phenomena.

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

Here's a staggering statistic for you. There are almost as many black men in medical school today that there were 50 years ago. And how does this impact the delivery of care, especially during a pandemic?

I read this editorial recently in the Washington Post by our guest today, Dr. Arturo Holmes II. He's a urology resident at SUNY Downstate. Dr. Holmes, thanks for joining me.

ARTURO HOLMES II: Thank you guys for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: You know, we've been addressing this issue of racial injustice, disparities at WebMD and Medscape. And I wanted you to tell your story. And I want to read a line that I was fascinated by. Again, it's in the Washington Post. And you say, "I'm a black doctor. I wear my scrubs everywhere now, seeking to preemptively exonerate my blackness with my professional garb."

That's a powerful statement. What do you mean by that?

ARTURO HOLMES II: So as we've seen in events that have really shaken the country, there's a lot of unrest, especially con-- concerning the treatment of Black people, Black Americans, uh, in terms-- um, in relation to law enforcement. No one should feel the need to wear scrubs anywhere or wear any sort of professional apparel to-- to-- to protect themselves or be treated, you know, humanely in America. Um--

JOHN WHYTE: But you're not supposed to wear scrubs outside the hospital. [LAUGHS]

ARTURO HOLMES II: So true. You shouldn't. You know, that's-- that's definitely not what they were designed for. Um, however, in uncertain circumstances, you know, scrubs may be the only thing, you know, that can remind people that you are human and that you like to be treated as such.

JOHN WHYTE: You tell a story how you were driving 10 miles an hour and you were stopped. Can you tell our listeners a little more about that story?

ARTURO HOLMES II: So about a year ago, I was on my way home, after leaving the hospital. I was really tired that night. And the-- the most-- the-- I just remember driving. Um, there was this car that was driving really slowly. I wasn't sure why they were driving slow.

Um, you know, it was kind of concerning to me, actually. Um, so I resolved to go ahead and pass that vehicle. And when I did, the lights came o-- came on. And I pulled over to the side of the road.

The police officers-- there were four of them in there-- they stopped me. You know, and the rest is kind of in the article. Um, you know, they thought that I was trying to disrespect them. You know, it-- it wasn't-- it wasn't a very friendly encounter. Um, and I was actually concerned for my own safety.

Um, at some point, you know, during our interaction, I could just see in their eyes that it appeared like they saw me for the first time. Um, and at that point, that's when the conversation kind of changed, um, and I ultimately got to go home. But, you know, that's something that's kind of stuck with me. Um, yeah.

JOHN WHYTE: Did you tell them you were a doctor?

ARTURO HOLMES II: I did not tell them I was a doctor.

JOHN WHYTE: Mm-hm.

ARTURO HOLMES II: You know, they-- I had on scrubs, though. So they could see, and they-- they re-- they recognized that, so.

JOHN WHYTE: You say, "Still I wear scrubs. I wear scrubs hoping that they'll serve as a reminder, just enough to give pause, forcing those who would judge or harm me because of my skin color to reconsider." Do scrubs give you a different identity?

ARTURO HOLMES II: So scrubs don't change who I am. Scrubs may change people's perception of me. When I see my friends, when I see people I know, you know, whether those folks are patients or family members or, um, acquaintances, you know, I have a rapport. They know who I am.

Um, you know, I'm generally known as a-- as a fairly nice guy. Um, but when I-- when I see new people, you know, there-- there's questions, especially depending on the environment, um, and the circumstance. Um, like I highlighted in that essay, you know, people may assume that I'm not a nice guy or I mean ill, when that is not the case at all. Um, scrubs-- when I wear scrubs, however, that doesn't happen. It doesn't happen, like at all.

JOHN WHYTE: Why did you write the essay? Residents are pretty busy. You had a lot already on your plate. It takes a long time to-- to craft an article. Why did you feel the need to write this?

ARTURO HOLMES II: In residency we have weekly didactics. We have weekly conference. And since COVID started, um, we've had wellness-- kind of wellness check-ins at the start of conference each week. Um, after the passing of George Floyd, it was brought to my attention that we'd be discussing him in conference one day, actually the next day. And I became aware that I would be the only black resident at that meeting.

And I felt particularly compelled to share my perspective. When I shared it, um, a lot of my residents-- co-residents responded, um, favorably. Actually, you know, they became somewhat emotional, um, and felt adamantly that I should share this with others through publication. Um, I wasn't initially going to publish it. I just used it as an opportunity to kind of organize my thoughts. But after kind of seeing their reaction and hearing how they felt, I thought, well, you know, maybe-- maybe I need to share this with other people.

JOHN WHYTE: There are very few men of color in medical school. Tell us your journey to becoming a physician and your thoughts and-- on how we might get more men, more Black men into medical school.

ARTURO HOLMES II: That's an excellent question. So I'm originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I went to The Walker School in Marietta, Georgia, undergrad at Mercer University and Medical School and Meharry Medical College. Um, I'm currently a resident here at SUNY Downstate. Um, you know, going through-- kind of matriculating through the education system, um, is-- is-- is challenging for everyone.

But there are struggles unique to being, um, someone of African descent. Um, you know, when you are interested in the sciences, as I was-- or am, rather-- you may go to classrooms and not see a lot of people like you. There-- you know, there are less teachers that look like you, that, um, are familiar with sort of the struggles that you face on a day to day basis.

Growing up, I had a-- an African-American pediatrician. I just remember-- I just remember always going to see her and how warm it felt to be in her presence and how she understood me. And that's something that I definitely wanted to share with other people.

JOHN WHYTE: Did you have mentors, role models?

ARTURO HOLMES II: Yes. One of the, um-- one of the most important menotrs to me has been Dr. Kelvin Moses at, uh, Vanderbilt. Um, I met him, um, during my time at Meharry Medical College.

Kind of the way that he sees the world and interacts with students, um, and teachers really impressed me. I-- I always reach out to Moses when I have to-- you know, when I have to think about important decisions, especially when it concerns, uh, medicine.

JOHN WHYTE: What advice do you have for young black men, those that might want to be going to medical school, maybe something different-- engineering, law school? What can you tell them?

ARTURO HOLMES II: I'd tell them that there is a place for you. Not only is there a place for you, but we need you. Everyone needs you-- not just your communities. People tend to think that, um-- that prejudice is, you know, something that's limited to-- to socioeconomic statuses or, um, education levels or what people's intentions are.

But that's not the case. And the only way to kind of show everyone or to kind of communicate that, um, is through action and to-- you know, to move forward and to-- to accomplish things and push forward and contribute.

JOHN WHYTE: Has COVID exposed these biases and disparities?

ARTURO HOLMES II: COVID has definitely highlighted, you know, health disparities as far as, you know, the disproportionate impact it's had on-- on African-American communities. Um, so-- but the thing is, these things have already-- have always existed. These aren't new phenomena.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Holmes, I want to thank you for sharing your insights and the courage to tell your story. Uh, we need to hear more of these stories to help bring about change.

ARTURO HOLMES II: Thank you. Thank you for having me.