As we begin Black History Month, we would like to share a piece that was written in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by Open Door’s Dr. Robert Thompson for the Open Door staff.
As this is the month we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, I have been asked to reflect on my experiences as an African-American physician and my life experiences. (Let me preface this by saying that I am a physician/provider who just so happens to be Black, and for that matter I didn’t even know I was Black until first grade when another little boy told me I could not be an FBI agent because I was Black, and I went home and looked around — “ohh.”).
Dr. King was fervent about racial equality. He also saw the need for economic and educational equality and the ability to use learned skills for upward mobility and empowerment. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my great-grandfather who stoked coal in the winter and landscaped in the summer, putting my grandfather through dental school as well as helping my father and his cousins through dental school and other professional schooling. I was therefore surrounded by professionals in my early life. I believe that being raised within this legacy, along with other personal motivations, I found my way to the choice of medicine.
Aside from small bumps in the road, this has been a wonderful life. I should mention that in the ninth grade I attended an after-school discussion for students who wanted to be physicians. I attended enthusiastically and remembered asking questions even though I am usually shy and was the only Black student. After the meeting I went up to the physician who was white to ask an additional question, and he said point blank, “Forget it – you will never be a doctor”. I was crushed and did not know what to do; this was a professional, he had to know what he was talking about. When I got home my father in his wisdom said some choice words to me, such that I set aside my doubts and renewed the vigor with which I set upon my career path.
I have been blessed with working in many different places in my life, but I have always worked with underserved communities, whether in Washington, DC, Cleveland, OH, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or here in Ossining. I have worked with Hess Oil, Ford Motor Company, and the Army National Guard, but no matter where I have worked the impact of giving treatment, care and guidance to that person in front of you is the same. Sometimes, that person becomes your friend in your heart forever.
I was deployed to Iraq and one of medical teams’ responsibilities was to go out in the city and do Med readies. This is a strategy where you set up a pop-up clinic in an abandoned building and inform the surrounding community that the medical team was there (as we had wiped out their health infrastructure). We would stay for a couple of hours and examine anyone who came, giving medicine, advice, and whatever else we could offer. This one woman had evidence of cellulitis on her body, and I gave her advice and antibiotics to hopefully resolve her infection. Her face brightened with appreciation, and she thanked me with a smile in her eyes that to this day I can still feel. The act of caring for that individual in front of us always becomes so personal, no matter where we are.
We are fortunate and blessed to give care to our community and Open Door provides us the venue to do that. We might come from different backgrounds, myself from Black and Caribbean heritage, but at the end of the day it is the caring that makes the difference. When we come together as a community of mixed heritage to care for all in need with equal compassion, we heal and uplift our populations. I have been blessed to work around the loving, intelligent, and invested professionals who I believe make our community a healthier and better place. When you truly care, everyone is equal. Here, we care.