In the fall of 2001, I was a medical student doing an Internal Medicine clerkship in Brooklyn, New York City. Every morning we attended “morning report” from 8-9 am in a basement conference room. Morning report is an hour-long conference during which cases from overnight are reviewed. The conference is a wealth of knowledge, and much teaching happens in this glorious hour. It was rarely missed by anyone. Rounds began shortly after the morning report at 9 am. I dutifully attended every morning report. From there, I took the elevator from the basement to the fourteenth floor. The elevator was usually packed with people and stopped on nearly every floor.
On September 11, my exit from the elevator to the fourteenth floor was met with an immediately palpable somber mood. I could tell something was wrong, but what it was that was wrong, I did not know. I had just emerged from a basement without cell phone reception. I searched for my team. I could hear screaming and wailing. I followed the sound into a patient room. She looked at me and cried out, “they got us again.” Her entire body shook, and she rocked herself back and forth. She had a large window that coincidentally faced Manhattan. I gazed in that direction and saw smoke billowing from the Twin Towers. I did not know the origin of that thick smoke. Regardless, my stomach sank, and adrenaline started pumping. Who were “they?”
I located my team. I asked the intern what was going on. He told me a plane had struck the first Twin Tower. My immediate reaction was shock – disbelief that a pilot could so blatantly miss the 1300 feet tall doublet. The intern told me that this was not an accident. Then he filled me in on the events of the morning. I knew my family would be worried. I tried calling all of my parents’ numbers. I managed to get through on their landline, enough to shout “I’m ok,” before the phone disconnected. They are three hours behind, and I could tell I had woken them from slumber.
Life in Medicine always goes on, and our attending corralled everyone for rounds. Patients were presented, seen, and examined. Bloodwork and imaging were reviewed. Treatment plans were outlined. And along the way from patients’ rooms, we witnessed in horror as first one, and then the second, Twin Tower crumbled into ash. Little did I know that my life as a born and raised American would never be the same.
“If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” cautioned President George W Bush.
Suddenly nonwhite brown-skinned people, no matter their birthplace or allegiances, were transformed from “You” to “They.” We were told to “go back to where you came from.” We were beaten. We were attacked. We were shot. We were pulled from airline security lines for “random” security checks and palpated in front of entire airports. (The letters SSSS stamped onto a boarding pass always heralded a “random” screening). We were pulled off airplanes. Our passports were confiscated at immigration lines. We were pushed in front of subways. Patients requested white physicians rather than us. All media and movie representations of POC were as villains. Believers of Islam are called Muslims, yet an entirely new vocabulary emerged — Islamist, Islamic fundamentalist. We were dubbed these names among many other ignorant ones. We were accused of hating America even though we live here, we pay taxes, and we contribute to our communities. We were asked to condemn acts of violence every single time they happened. The rise in hate crimes against anyone perceived to be “Arab” post-9/11 is well-documented. 2016 brought another wave of racism, xenophobia, and a repeating wave of hate crimes, this time against African-Americans, LatinX, Jews with a reinvigorated hatred towards Muslims.
A study published recently showed that there is an increased risk of acute cardiovascular events soon after events of significant stress. It demonstrated that irrespective of age, sex, and racial/ethnic groups, the hospitalization rate for heart attacks and strokes was 1.62 times higher in the two days immediately after the 2016 presidential election than the same two days in the week before the election. The American Psychological Association recently noted that a large portion of adults consider the current political climate as a significant source of stress.
For four years, a President labeled people from various “shithole countries” as murderers, drug lords, and rapists. He commented on refugees having low IQ status. He peddled the idea that low-income people were not “safe” to live around. He called blacks “lazy.” He normalized this rhetoric. Multiple reports of his mistreatment of women have emerged. His mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately killed communities of color and left 400,000 people dead.
All this rhetoric, racism, and xenophobia came to a head-on on Jan 6th, 2021. A mob of violent protestors stormed the Capitol Building in an attempt to overthrow an election that was proven in court to be free and fair. A gallow waited to envelop Vice President Pence, and there was a plan to assassinate Speaker Pelosi. Capitol Police were attacked with crutches, fire extinguishers, and flagpoles carrying the American flag. Property was trashed, and pipe bombs were recovered. The Constitution was disrespected in the most sacrilegious manner.
The irony of being vilified for twenty years for another person’s crime. Yet, the Department of Homeland Security drafted a report in September 2020 stating that white supremacists present the gravest terror threat to the United States. This country was founded on the genocide of Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved African-Americans.
What is there to be learned from this?
We have already demonstrated that political climate can play an adverse role in health.
It seems we have come to a critical point in time where we all can choose to move forward, but how?
First and foremost, we must recognize that extremists come in all colors. Each individual should be judged as the individual they are, not lumped into blanket statements and generalizations about their race or ethnicity.
We cannot move forward without reconciling the past. History needs to be rereviewed. People need to share their stories and experiences. These stories need to be heard and listened to. This is how we can start reaching across the middle to connect with the other sides.
It is time for everyone to come together. We must reconcile the past. We should take an in-depth, hard look inside and choose how we want to move forward to heal the divide in our great nation. It will take every one of us to succeed.
Uzma Khan, MD, is a practicing Internist and a Women in White Coats writer’s fellow. She blogs about medicine, money and life at http://www.meandmystethoscope.com/, and she can be found on Facebook Uzma Khan, MD, Instagram @uzmakhanmd and Twitter @uzmakhanmd