Skip to Main Content
Contribute Try STAT+ Today

In the acclaimed movie “Hidden Figures,” the main characters — three black mathematicians who are women — struggle to be accepted for who they are and the work they do in a world that isn’t prepared for expertise and authority that’s young, female, and black. Fast forward more than 50 years, and in my experience as a first-year resident at Cambridge Health Alliance, very little has changed.

A few months ago, we were treating a patient who was not permitted food or drink because she would soon undergo surgery. In discussing her case with my attending and her surgery team, it became clear that we didn’t know when she would be scheduled, so we decided to go ahead and let her eat. I placed the order so she could have something if she wanted.

A male nurse working with me said no and would not fulfill the order. He was older and white.


I deeply respect nurses’ opinions; they spend a lot of time with patients, and their clinical instinct and experience is invaluable. I took his concerns to more senior doctors, but they disagreed. I informed the nurse that we recognized his concern, but had decided to stay the course. He again said no.

My pager went off and I used it as an excuse to gracefully exit this awkward conversation. My orders were being disregarded and I didn’t know what to do.


Recently, I was jotting down notes on medications for a patient whose lungs were filling with fluid, when his friend, a middle-aged white woman, slapped my hand.

I dropped my pen in shock and looked up at her in disbelief.

“Illegal abbreviation,” she scolded, waving her index finger at me.

As if I was a dog who had gotten into the trash instead of the doctor trying to treat her friend’s dire condition.

This woman gave me a lecture on which shorthand was allowed and which was frowned upon. She was emboldened to do so because, she said, she used to be a nurse. I simply picked up my pen and carried on.

Her touching me was especially galling because, while treating her friend, I had been careful and respectful in putting my hands on his body:

“If it’s OK, I’m going to do a physical exam.”

“May I use my stethoscope to listen to your heart?”

“If you don’t mind leaning forward, I’d like to listen to your lungs.”

Yet his friend, a former clinician, hit me. She disciplined me, as if I was a child — as if I had no authority to be in that room, caring for her friend. She put her hands on me, a stranger, without asking if it was OK.

In both of these cases, my authority and autonomy were challenged. Was it because I was young? Because I was black? Because I was a woman?

Black women constantly deal with the indignity of not being taken seriously by white people whose privilege towers over them in society. In the hospital, however, the power and privilege are mine. As a doctor it is my responsibility to make decisions that ensure my patients’ medical needs are met. As a trainee, I recognize the complexity of our conflict: outside the hospital, the power was theirs. Inside, it was mine, a young black female physician.

Maybe they preferred the status quo that kept me, the hidden figure, hidden.

In the case of the male nurse who refused to fulfill my patient order, I had to ask my attending physician to intervene.

In the case of the woman who slapped my hand, her microaggression broke both professional and personal boundaries. I felt too humiliated to tell anyone about it.

In both cases, I had to reckon with a lack of respect that went well beyond my role as a trainee. I’ve had to ask myself, when are we allies with our colleagues and the people we treat? When are we at odds? Why do I even have to ask this question at all? I have to figure out how to be a good doctor, while sorting through the social dynamics I’m subject to as a black woman. This is something I’ll have to navigate my entire career, while many other residents will grow into the respect they’ve earned, without question.

During this Black History Month, I’ve been reflecting on how my race and gender intersect with the extraordinary responsibility I have for my patients’ health. It has made me realize how I often choose to please others at my own expense because I’m trying to make them more comfortable around me and my role in the medical hierarchy.

As a physician, I’m learning that I need to lean into my authority and counter any force that threatens to undermine it, because one day I will be an attending and doctors-in-training will look to me for leadership, guidance, and support. By putting myself first, as a black healer, I truly believe I’m putting my patients first.

  • So wait, was there any indication that these disrespectful interactions had anything to do with race or sex? Or do you just assume every slight to be bigotry?

    I’m a med student going into my 4th year. I get disrespected, slighted, and treated poorly on basically a daily basis. My residents aren’t free from the same treatment. We come from all different backgrounds but the common denominator is that we deal with a lot of different strong personalities every day and some of them are rude, disrespectful, and simply assholes. I don’t blame anyone for it. After all, the hospital is an emotional place.

    Do racism and sexism still rear their ugly heads in the workplace? Of course, all the time, and it’s important to recognize that. But is it productive to assume that every rudeness is the result of those forces until proven otherwise? I don’t think so.

    I don’t know, maybe these incidents did contain legitimate evidence of bigotry beyond the race, sex, or age of their perpetrators. But if they did, you left these key parts out of the story. And in that, you just further the problem.

  • I see this as stemming from the inauspicious policies that the FDA/DEA and the other govt offices are doing, when dealing with the public. They and their policies, are eroding the trust that the people used to have in law enforcement, and now they are working on ruining the relationship, that the people have with their medical professionals. They are sticking their noses into where they don’t belong. I have had issues with medical professionals, and actually caught myself yelling at the head nurse in an ER. I was shocked at my own behavior, and thought about why I had done that, when I KNOW she was doing her job. It was, however a fact that the patient is a difficult ‘stick’ and knows how it should be done, after having been stuck multiple times during multiple follow up blood draws, while on coumadin. This leaves many bruises, due to blown out veins and those who are unseasoned, when it comes to patients of this nature. She has seen what works and what does not, and tries to inform the person performing the current blood draw on her, only to be ignored. She is not trying to do that person’s job. She is not better than those who have their degree in whatever discipline they need to do that job correctly. She is only trying to avoid the repeated abuse, that comes from people who do not care to listen to an experienced patient. She does not WANT the 4 or 5 sticks it takes to get only a half a tube of blood, only to be told “come back next week and we’ll try again”. There ARE practitioners out there who draw her blood correctly and successfully, without the pain and bruises. How do we resolve these issues?

  • I’m a white, female, middle-aged physician in training.

    The incidents described are typical for any female physician still in training. Families assume that you’re a nurse. Staff, especially in an academic institution, will second guess and haze you because your position is NOT one of power and respect as a resident. We’re still in training and staff know that. For some (not all!), this is the only chance they’ll get to take out any ill will they may have toward physicians with little to no consequence. Others may have a sincere concern about orders given because they do not understand the entire picture.

    I’ve had multiple nurses try to refuse orders. Obviously you check what you’ve ordered, but then you start with education about your treatment decision. If they still refuse, you escalate and report…just as you would in any other business.

    Although it can be discouraging, there is no real surprise in some people behaving inappropriately in stressful situations, but what percentage of patients and coworkers are problematic? Statistically…there will always be some, and residents are in a position to experience poor treatment at greater frequency.

    I’ll reserve judgement for the “real” amount of disregard until after I’m done with residency.

  • I was taught early in my career by a wise mentor of mine how to embark on my career as a person of color. I didn’t realize that my manner of speaking, the words I chose, and my mannerisms that were culturally ingrained in me regarding humility, reverence and loyalty would not serve me in a leadership capacity. Now she didn’t say to abandon those qualities of me but she did say to embolden more authoritative aspects that would demand respect. I too agree that women need to “lean in” to their authority an be self aware that I worked hard to be where I am. Much blessings to you as you undergo this important self realization. I hope you find wonderful mentors to help you as I have.

  • Whoa, that woman hitting your hand was not a microaggression; that was assault! What a freak. Who does that? I’m sorry that you experienced that, and that male nurse’s behavior. It sounds like you did exactly as you should if there were a conflict over treatment and consulted with other people when the nurse thought there was a problem, and he still didn’t accept the result. I know from my own experience that there is often a distinct air of sexism with this sort of poor professional behavior between genders, and from hearing and seeing the experiences of others that there is also often a racial aspect in that circumstance.

    For the people questioning that – there’s usually a pretty clear difference in attitude and expression when that’s part of the equation. It’s detectable when you experience it, especially as part of a pattern. I’m sure there are false positives, but mostly – there are not. The reason why you think people are going on about this when you don’t see it is because you are not in a position to experience the pattern yourself, and you therefore don’t see that it just goes on and ON.

  • How well does professional victimhood pay? Or is this just the result of a generation that never had to work retail and now doesn’t understand that the world is different outside of their safe space?

    • Paul–I’m sure that your legal training taught you to append the modifier “alleged” prior to assigning a crime to a person who has not had the benefit of due process. I imagine that the Chief Medical Officer at Cambridge Health Alliance will approach the issue in a much more balanced way as he attempts to discover the facts of the case.

    • You are correct; however, my most common role is the defense capacity – my client is presumed innocent (as is the retired nurse herein). That said, I did represent a MA healthcare facility in a situation similar and, as outside counsel, pursued a complaint as I described and resolved it short of prosecution in exchange an understanding that the charges would be resurrected in the event of a similar violation.

  • Thanks, William Stueve. I really liked “gaslighting concern trolls,” that’s it in a nutshell. Amazing there are so many of them!

  • Each of these incidents should be reported to leadership in the organization.
    Slapping your hand is not microaggression, it is assault ad cannot be tolerated.
    The perpetrator should have been reported and security should have been notified and she should have been escorted from the facility pending an investigation. The slapping may have been racially motivated, it may have been gender bias, either way, it is physical assault.

  • Jennifer, I am sorry that so many people here are missing the point of your story, sadly most of all “Senior Doctor” who seems to suggest that someone slapping someone’s hand in a hospital setting may be justified in certain cases. I cannot think of what those cases would be, but I would be highly suspect of this person’s “seniority” or experience.

    Going through residency training involves navigating this experience of growing into the new title that now comes after your name. There is an element of imposter syndrome and figuring out where you stand in relation to others. Part of it comes naturally with age and time, and part of it involves faking it ’till you make it. Which is honestly just another way of saying “trust yourself.” You jumped through all the hoops and passed all the tests that allows you to be respected as an authority figure that everyone else without an M.D. is not. That is just a basic truth of how meritocracy works.

    Both of these nurses were in the wrong, and you would have been justified to pursue a disciplinary action in either case (i.e., calling the nursing supervisor and/or calling security). Leaving the issue of race completely out of it, neither of these situations is in any way acceptable on the nurses’ part. But let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with nurses second guessing doctors. My mom is a retired nurse, and my butt has been saved more than once by nurses questioning my decisions, but it needs to be handled professionally. Both of these nurses lack professionalism (or class, for that matter) and are an embarrassment to the nursing profession. There are ways to be nice or not-nice to get a point across, and of all the options available these people both chose to NOT be nice about it. Again, I am sad that so many commenters on this story are missing that extremely simple point. I think a kindergarten class would even understand that these individuals were not being nice or respectful towards you.

    On the matter of race (and as a non-white person with a hard to pronounce name myself), I agree you need to struggle with the questions of why these scenarios happen(ed), but do keep in mind that highlighting the issue in your essays will distract from deeper teaching moment (as you can see now in the comments). It could have been your age, or it could have been your gender too, but to me it’s most important that you were not treated with a basic respect that everyone should have towards everyone else. In my own experience, pursuing clinical excellence shuts down 90% of critics, and the other 10% just appear to be angry and miserable about life in general, not just towards you.

    Lastly, struggle with the possibility that you didn’t respond because you internalized the lack of self-confidence that these two people wanted you to feel. Whether that was from race, gender, age, or anything else, the demonstration of your confidence by your authority, attitude, and clinical ability will leave no one space to question you next time. And there will be a next time, of course.

    • Woe be unto the administrators who have to deal with this distraction in their hospital. If unprovoked, overtly hostile acts stop happening to the author, it would have a damaging effect on her cultivated career as a SJW. If we were investigators, rather than an adoring fanbase looking to amplify our own needs, disguised as an innocent victim’s, then we would recognize that only the author has motive to be involved some form of hostility month in and month out. What really happens is the important thing, not the recollections of a motivated victim. I don’t know the facts, either before I read the piece or after. So, I will spare the hangman’s noose for anyone until I do.

    • @Senior Doctor,

      Excuse me??? Her “cultivated career as a SJW?” She already has a career as a PHYSICIAN. She experienced discrimination as a young, black woman doctor… for attention? You sound absolutely ridiculous. We believe her because many of us have either experienced this type of prejudice firsthand or have seen it happen to our colleagues and mentors.

      One example, my mother has been a pediatrician for 20+ years. In the hospital faculty lounge, another doctor ASKED TO SEE HER ID because he couldn’t fathom a Filipina woman being a doctor and not a nurse. There are countless times where I have noticed other women physicians and students being treated differently because of their race/gender.

      You’re right, though: hearing her experiences does “amplify our needs:” our need to be alert and aware of the unfair treatment facing our professional peers and to work actively in the clinic, classroom, and on the street to fight racism, sexism, and those (like yourself) who are indifferent to the injustices facing marginalized communities and identities.

  • Damn right you are being singled out because of your race and gender. Don’t let all of the gaslighting concern trolls in the comments convince you otherwise. My advice to you would be to resist the temptation to get through the adversity on your own. Find allies in your program and rock the establishment with solidarity. Also, continue witnessing your struggles with your talented writing. I wish you all the best.

    • Jennifer, this is your uncle I am glad you wrote this article and I’m proud of you, hold your head high and remember you are a princess. be yourself and take nothing less from anyone.

Comments are closed.