Reflecting on 2020 during Black History Month

Reflecting on 2020 during Black History Month

I have always liked working and being with kids. If you have spent any time in a hospital or time with pediatricians you will recognize we are the ones smiling all the time, because I think we have the best jobs in the world helping kids. I was blessed to become a pediatrician and it’s a fun ride. Hopefully, you enjoy what you do, and I have since medical school to now, having been in practice for 32 years on the south side of Chicago near Advocate Trinity Hospital. It’s been the ultimate time-lapse to watch my first young patients grow and now I am caring for their grandkids! My job is never dull as children come with unique challenges and strengths.

This past year has also had its challenges and strengths. From March through May 2020 my practice was closed as we assessed the growing COVID-19 concerns and how to safely open again to keep our office and patients safe. The government’s financial assistance for medical practices helped our practice keep employees on payroll for which I am grateful. I wish I could say that during those couple months I accomplished more around my office and home list than I did, but I did catch up on reading 10 to 12 science fiction books. Both of my young, adult children are home and my wife is (mostly) enjoying cooking more with all of us around.

Last summer our country experienced several incidents and racial inequality was in the headlines again. It can be a rough world out there and racism is real. I have a 21-year-old son with whom we have talked with repeatedly and worry about keeping safe, especially at night. I have lived through it where you are not sure if interactions you walk into will be nice or difficult. When I was growing up there were only two families who were Black on my block but then seven years later it was 100% Black. I was the nerdy kid reading my sci-fi books at lunch time and would sit at different tables that were Black, white or Hispanic. I equally didn’t fit in everywhere. I did the same thing in college but more intentionally because I did not want to get pigeon-holed as hanging out with just one race or culture though I identify as Black. I have very multicultural roots, as do many Americans. These events have provided more dialogue with my teenage patients than before. I often ask them how they are and is their current life working out for them. I let them know to look out for this and don’t do that. They are more apt to listen to me as their doctor though their parent might have said the same thing in the car ride over.

When my non-Black or Black friends or colleagues ask me how they can be more diverse and inclusive I tell them these three things:

  • Try not to feel unsettled or uncomfortable being the minority in a room or situation. You can either be a shell of who you are or get comfortable. People can pick up on your body language and expressions, so relax.
  • Spend time with a diverse group of people, whether your friends, fellow church members or neighbors. I have the luxury of owning my own practice so I don’t have strict time limits on the time I spend with my patients. When the other person feels rushed from you or that you are not seeing them as a person seeking your help, they will wonder what’s going on and not feel heard or seen.
  • Openly discuss race with others and work on starting the conversation so it becomes natural.

Around my practice’s community it is 50% African-American, 30% Hispanic and the remaining 20% are a variety of cultures. My own practice sees about 70% African-American and 15% Hispanic patients. I realize that our practice is at the forefront of taking care of the kids in the community and being a role model serving the community. The nearest pediatrician offices are more than a three to five mile radius away from my office. More pediatricians are needed in our area to help address the growing obesity and diabetes in our children.

But for now we keep on keeping on. For Black History Month my staff gets into the spirit by putting up factoids around the office relating to historic people of color and decorating the office. As I love books, I listen to audio books in my car and am currently listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Stride to Freedom which details how everything got started back then. It is a fascinating read. Last year I listened to the Roots book which was good. One of the most interesting people from the past would be Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Dr. Williams was the first surgeon to perform open heart surgery at the turn of the century at one of the first Black hospitals he founded in Chicago. As a physician, realizing what little equipment he had and what it took for him to graduate medical school— from my alma mater Northwestern Medical School — I am grateful for his determination and medical contributions to the people of Chicago, Ill. and this country.

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Dr. Wendell Wheeler