George Floyd, Elijah McCain, and Eric Garner all uttered the words “I can’t breathe” under the weight of police brutality. These words were not just as a cry for help but also a cry for medical intervention that went unanswered. We, as Pre-Health Advisors, want to respond to that cry with an affirmation that Black Lives Matter. Black Health Matters.
To many of us, these names are receiving the recognition they deserve thanks to the work of these victims’ families and other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) activists. As we look at our current moment and learn more about our own blindspots as advisors, we have realized the importance of seeing these events as part of a historical system of oppression; the violence inflicted upon Black Americans by the medical and scientific community specifically has historical roots. Therefore, we want to #saytheirnames as a way to honor their legacies.
- Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951): Lacks was an African American woman receiving treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Without her knowledge or consent, physicians at the hospital took samples of her cancerous cells obtained during a biopsy and shared them with other researchers. These cells (HeLa cells) have since been used in many key discoveries in modern medicine, including most recently in COVID-19 vaccine research. Her family has never received monetary compensation for the use of her cells.
- Ernest Hendon (1907-2004): Hendon was the last surviving participant of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The study, which aimed to study the full progression of the disease, began in 1932, before there was a known treatment. In 1947, when penicillin became the recommended treatment, researchers did not provide care to participants as they died, went blind, or experienced other severe health problems associated with untreated syphilis.
- Anarcha: 17 year old enslaved woman who endured 30 fistula repair operations at the hands of Dr. J. Marion Sims without anesthesia, because he did not believe that Black people experienced pain in the same way white people did.
The fact that these names are not as familiar as the studies or white scientists associated with them is a testament to this truth: that white supremacy is at the foundation of generational violence, racism, and inequality perpetrated against BIPOC individuals, and it does harm to both the oppressor and the oppressed. These systems of oppression that were at play for Ms. Lacks, Mr. Hendon, and Anarcha are still in play today:
- Life expectancy of Black/African Americans is four years lower than that of white Americans. (CDC National Center for Health Statistics)
- Recent COVID-19 data shows that Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native populations in the U.S. are experiencing higher rates of hospitalization and death compared to White populations. (CDC COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities)
- Black women are 3 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. (CDC Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Pregnancy-Related Deaths)
As recently declared by the CDC, racism is a public health crisis.
Beyond the healthcare system itself, BIPOC students pursuing careers in healthcare face unique challenges as well. For example, only 3% of successful medical school applicants in 2020 were Black men, even though they make up 13% of the U.S. population. There are fewer Black men in medical school now than there were in 1978 (“Diversity of the National Medical Student Body — Four Decades of Inequities”). Research also shows that patients report higher rates of satisfaction when seen by a provider who matches their racial/ethnic identities (“Association of Racial/Ethnic and Gender Concordance Between Patients and Physicians With Patient Experience Ratings”).
Because of this, as Pre-Health Advisors, we believe that diversifying the health professions is at the core of alleviating these disparities and improving the patient experience. We are committed to supporting BIPOC students in their pursuit of health professions careers by addressing these and other barriers.
As advisors, we also want to acknowledge what BIPOC pre-health students have shared with us regarding the specific impacts these systems of oppression have on their lived experiences on our campus, such as:
- Internalized oppression and imposter syndrome stemming from being at a historically white institution on a predominantly white professional path
- Lacking mentors from a similar background who are in their field of interest
- Financial barriers to the application process and graduate education
To students who identify as members of a marginalized culture within the community, we, as advisors, acknowledge our failure to more clearly and intentionally articulate how we are working to recognize, understand, and combat systemic racism in our office, our university, and in the health professions writ large. As staff at Brandeis University, we commit to the values outlined in the Brandeis University Diversity Statement and will work to hold ourselves and Brandeis University accountable to those ideals. As your advisors we commit to:
- Using our position as liaisons between pre-health students and health professions programs to voice the concerns of BIPOC applicants and advocate for increasing diversity and reducing bias within health professions admissions.
- Using our position as liaisons between pre-health students and STEM faculty on campus to support BIPOC pre-health students early in their academic careers and to amplify the academic experiences of BIPOC pre-health students on campus.
- Working to identify barriers that BIPOC pre-health students face and how we can partner with other offices and initiatives to alleviate those barriers.
- Ensuring that all Brandeis pre-health students graduate with a basic understanding of the role that implicit bias and social determinants of health play in healthcare inequality.
- Listening to and responding to the needs of BIPOC pre-health students and providing opportunities for students to provide feedback.
- Working towards defining and providing personalized, equitable advising to every student. This means that we listen carefully to a student’s goals and interests and chart a path to help them achieve that goal, taking into account their individual unique strengths.
We are grateful for the rich legacy of student activism on campus, from Brandeis’ inception to Ford Hall 1969 to Ford Hall 2015. Student leaders have helped us think critically and formulate our Black Action Plan during the 2020-2021 academic year. One major takeaway was that we needed to be more transparent about our anti-racism commitments and the work we are currently doing. Therefore, we will be updating progress on these initiatives and others in our Black Action Plan. Keep checking back; we encourage you to keep us accountable on our progress!
Special thanks to: Samia Tamazi (‘20), Zoë Fort (‘21), Salma Ahmed (‘22), Ariel Brathwaite (‘22), Mariuxi Diaz-Rodriguez (‘22), Jonathan Joasil (‘22), and Leah Naraine (‘22) for providing feedback on this statement.