February 24, 2021

Op-Ed: Uniting to Become a More Perfect Union

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As an internal medicine physician specializing in the care of hospitalized patients, I have the privilege of caring for patients during some of their most vulnerable moments. I remember when I was finally able to discharge a patient who came to the hospital critically ill and close to death. We met and overcame her health challenges together. As the nurse was taking the patient out of the hospital to go home, the patient stopped her and said to me, “Dr. Whitley, I cannot thank you enough for your excellent care. Can I ask you---What is your ethnicity?” I responded, “Sure, I’m black.” She responded, “Oh no, you can’t be. You are such a good doctor.”

Sadly, I was not surprised by this comment. I have been faced many times with the presumption that Black Americans are not smart enough to be good doctors. I must often put in additional effort to allay these concerns in order to gain the respect and trust needed to care for patients.

Black History Month is a reminder to recognize and reflect upon the achievements and contributions of African Americans. It allows us to challenge the negative imagery and stereotypes that have been attributed to Black Americans. When these achievements go underreported or untold, false stereotypes are perpetuated.
Black History Month is often thought to exist for the sole benefit of the black community. This is far from true. The progress that our country has made toward racial justice and equality has resulted from the work and sacrifices of people belonging to multiple genders and ethnicities. We must all try to understand the stories and struggles of the people that make up our great and diverse country. When we come together to understand one another and help each other to overcome the various obstacles and challenges that we face, we continue on our nation’s journey toward becoming “a more perfect union.”

We have experienced an unprecedented period of fear and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more people are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the hope of returning to normal increases. Did you know that a key to the creation of vaccines was brought to America by an African slave? His name was Onesimus, and he introduced the process of variolation (also known as inoculation) to his owner, Cotton Mather. Variolation involved taking some of the substance of a smallpox lesion from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of a non-infected person.
This process proved extremely valuable in the fight for our country’s independence from the British. General George Washington realized that the smallpox virus was the invisible enemy that could cripple the Continental Army before the war even began. He decided to inoculate all American troops who never had smallpox. The measure staved off smallpox long enough to win the years-long fight with the British. In the process, Washington conducted the first massive, state-funded immunization campaign in American history.

The complete, and largely unknown, story can be accessed using the links below.
• Onesimus, an Enslaved African Man in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox
• How Crude Smallpox Inoculations Helped George Washington Win the War

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