If I Remain Silent: Notes by Nadia Laack, M.D.

stories Jun 05, 2020

During my last visit to Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, my son had a school break; so I brought him along, and after my meetings were done, we went to the local science museum. After learning about our genes, exploring the local history, and observing the furtive turtles and slithering reptiles, we descended the stairs and noticed a traveling exhibit: the Lynching Memorial. The main museum and memorial is in Montgomery, Alabama, but the mobile exhibit is traveling around the nation. There were warning signs about the graphic nature of the exhibit, and although I paused, since Axel is only eight, I decided it was important that we go in.

The exhibit was full of jars of dirt, gathered from under the trees that loved ones hung from, to honor those who never had a trial, a judge, a jury, a funeral, or even a body for burial.

The pictures and the stories of the horrific violence against our black brothers and sisters burn a hole in your soul forever. The racial terrorism and murder that is proudly documented in newspaper clippings make you feel sick, guilty, ashamed.

We saw maps: maps that look a lot like the pandemic maps we have grown accustomed to viewing, with bloody dots proportional to the number of lynchings in each city and state. As expected, the largest dots were concentrated in southern states, but there was even a small dot in Minnesota. I learned that despite numerous attempts since 1900 to make lynching a federal offense, the US congress had not been able to pass the law for nearly 120 years.

The law, now called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was finally passed unanimously last fall, and signed into effect in February of this year. We have to acknowledge and face our past in order to learn from it and begin healing the wounds that are hundreds of years deep.

Physicians may feel the need to stay politically impartial to be able to care for patients of color, police officers, as well as white supremacists. However, standing up and speaking out for what is right, just, and moral should not be a political issue. Is it a political issue when we ask our patients to stop making sexually suggestive comments to a nurse? Is it a political issue when we tell a family that the most qualified expert for their rare condition is the black doctor they are seeing?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has very clearly demonstrated, physicians and front-line healthcare workers are heroes and role models for our nation. Just as Michael Jordan and so many other celebrities and sports figures are aware, whether we like it or not, our community and society look to us to be an example of how to respond in times of crisis and turmoil. We are held to a higher standard. Especially for an issue such as racial disparities, which without question have medical consequences for our patients, we have a responsibility to be an example for others, reject discrimination against our staff, our patients, and the members of our community. Regardless of the individual events in the news, it should be abundantly clear that the healthcare profession is united in our commitment to supporting our colleagues and our patients, regardless of their political ideologies, religious affiliations, their sexual preferences, gender, or color of their skin. Always, not just in reaction to current events.

Although I would have loved to be able to just get to the COVID-19 agenda items in our regular town hall, I shared these thoughts with my department and later with the twitter community. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I remained silent regarding the continued national trauma, the epicenter of the most recent events being in our backyard. Because in the end, if I remain silent, am I any different than the three police officers that remained silent as George Floyd breathed his last breaths?

Nadia Laack, MD

* disclaimer: these are the personal views of Dr. Nadia Laack and not necessarily representative of Mayo Clinic

Nadia Laack, MD

Dr. Laack is Professor and Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Mayo Clinic and an international expert in pediatric and adult brain tumors.